James Fallows
James Fallows
James Fallows is a national correspondent for 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 Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More +
  • Eric Thayer / Reuters

    It’s What Bob Corker Does Next That Counts

    After the senator warned that Trump’s threats may set the nation “on the path to World War III,” the question is whether he intends to do anything about it.

  • Mass Shootings in the United States: 'This Is Who We Are'

    In the wake of Las Vegas, only one thing is certain, according to James Fallows: It will happen again.

  • Steve Marcus / Reuters

    Two Dark American Truths From Las Vegas

    On the certainty of more shootings

  • From Donald Trump, a New Low

    Reuters / Yuri Gripas
    Donald Trump, who is at one of his golf courses, early this morning.

    The purpose of my 152-installment Trump Time Capsule series during the 2016 campaign was to record, in real time, things Donald Trump said or did that were wholly outside the range for previous serious contenders for the White House.

    I’ve resisted continuing that during his time in office, because the nature of the man is clear.

    But his Twitter outburst this morning — as he has left Washington on another trip to one of his golf courses, as millions of U.S. citizens are without water or electricity after the historic devastation of Hurricane Maria, as by chance it is also Yom Kippur — deserves note. It is a significant step downward for him, and perhaps the first thing he has done in office that, in its coarseness, has actually surprised me. (I explained the difference, for me, between shock and surprise when it comes to Trump, in this item last week.) Temperamentally, intellectually, and in terms of civic and moral imagination, he is not fit for the duties he is now supposed to bear.

    ***

  • Two Additions to the Political Reading List: Unbelievable and Thanks, Obama

    Reuters / Carlo Allegri

    The relationship between the drama of a presidential campaign, and the literature and reportage that come from it, is shaky at best.

    By acclamation the best modern campaign-trail book, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer (see Molly Ball’s assessment here), came from the historically very uninspiring George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988. The book took Cramer nearly four years to write. Along the way, he despaired that he’d missed his chance to get it out before the next election cycle and that all his effort would be in vain. But the book endures because of the novelistic richness and humanity of its presentation of the politicians Cramer is writing about—they’re not simply the charlatans, liars, and opportunists of many campaign narratives (though each has elements of that) but complex, striving figures with mixtures of the admirable and the contemptible. Cramer chose what also turned out to be the inspired strategy of giving full time not just to the two finalists but also to four of the also-rans who fell back along the way: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and the young Joe Biden.

    My friend and former Washington Monthly colleague Walter Shapiro applied a similar “equal time for the also-rans” strategy in his elegant little book about the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan. The title refers to the humble origins of nearly all campaigns (i.e., all but Trump’s), in their early stages when the only reporter interested is crammed with staffers into the single campaign car. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign was brutal and violent; it also gave rise to Garry Wills’s memorable combination of reportage and scholarship, Nixon Agonistes, plus a book I remember being impressed by at the time, An American Melodrama by the British journalist team of Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, and Lewis Chester. The 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign was an all-fronts nightmare for the country, but from it came the lasting press chronicle The Boys on the Bus, by my college friend Timothy Crouse.

    On the other side of the literary ledger are the routine backstage tick-tock accounts that over-apply the lesson of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960 book. White pioneered the idea that minutiae about what candidates ate, did, or said off-stage could be of great interest. Through overuse by other authors, and because the tick-tock is now a staple of regular campaign coverage, the approach long ago became a cliche. (A: “With an oozing Philly cheesesteak in one hand, Hillary Clinton forged her connection to the hard-pressed voters of this crucial swing state.” B: “It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed Philly cheesesteak, after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, and promised to ‘come back for it later.’” One of these is a sentence from a real book about the 2008 campaign.)

    * * *

    This  is a setup for saying: The 2016 election, a low point for the nation, has produced some impressive works. For instance, two books that each spent time as leading national best-seller:

  • Why The New York Times Should Grapple With Its Coverage of Hillary's Emails

    Brendan McDermid / Reuters

    This week Jill Abramson, the estimable former executive editor of The New York Times, whom I’ve always admired and never criticized, contended that I had been “stoking” the idea that the NYT had a vendetta against Hillary Clinton.

    That is false.

    What I have argued, repeatedly during the campaign and most recently nine days ago in an item about Hillary Clinton’s new book, is that the Times very badly erred in its wild over-coverage of the Clinton email “issue,” and that this distorted coverage was, in turn, one of many factors leading to Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency.

  • Readers on Trump, Kaepernick, and the NFL

    Reuters / USA Today Sports

    Over the weekend I wrote about Donald Trump’s attacks on protesting NFL players, at a raucous rally in Alabama, and his tweeted threats that if North Korean officials didn’t change their tune, “they won’t be around much longer!”

    A sample of the response—pro, con, amplifying, and correcting:

    ‘To Make America Great, Remind Us of What Makes America Exceptional ...’ A veteran of America’s current long wars writes:

    I am a U.S Marine who has proudly served in Afghanistan and Iraq after a weekend filled with consternation over our president's comments and tweets. I'm convinced that he no longer cares about his job or national unity.

    He turned an NFL protest into a wedge issue about the flag so that he can appeal to a base of voters he is letting down. If players want to protest on the sidelines before games it is their choice and I respect their right to do so.

    As a U.S servicemen I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution which grants the right to free speech, peaceful assembly as well as to petition the government for wrongs committed. How players or individuals choosers to exercise such  freedoms is not my concern but my commander in chief using the flag and the sacrifice made by military families as a wedge issue is what troubles me.

    Being in the military you fight so that you have a home to come back to, you fight for a more "perfect union" but not to divide, politicize or segregate our nation on the basis of what voters believe in standing for the flag and which voters don't. I don't support the presidents effort to divide a nation already split on so many issues and unsure how to combat inequality.

    To make America great he must remind us of what makes this nation exceptional which is our belief that freedom and justice exist for all and that all Americans are created equal with inalienable rights.

    * * *

    Trump Never Loses!’ From another reader:

    Amidst the noise, I think you've overlooked last week's 'shocking' (but not surprising) reprise of one very basic Trump theme: TRUMP NEVER LOSES

  • AP

    Trump's Shocking Recklessness

    The president’s latest comments shouldn’t be surprising—but his deliberate inflammation of tense situations is no less stunning.

  • The Theory and Practice of Civic Engagement, by Eric Liu

    Eric Liu (Citizen University)

    If you happen to be in Redlands, California, on Thursday evening, September 21, I suggest you go by the headquarters of the tech company Esri to hear a talk by my friend Eric Liu, on the practical possibilities for civic engagement in our politically troubled age.

    If you don’t happen to be in Redlands, I recommend getting Eric’s book, You Are More Powerful Than You Think. It addresses a central question of this age: what, exactly, citizens who are unhappy with national politics can do, other than write a check or await the next chance to vote.

    This is a question I wrestled with immediately after last year’s election, in this Atlantic article, and in a commencement speech a few months later. But Eric, author of several previous books about the theory and practice of citizenship (including The Gardens of Democracy and A Chinaman’s Chance) and head of the Citizen University network, based in Seattle, has devoted his useful and enlightening new book to just this topic, in the age of Trump. He described some of its principles in a NYT interview with David Bornstein a few months ago. Essentially his topic is how to bridge the gap between thinking, “something should be done,” and actually taking steps to doing that something, on your own and with others. This also is the ongoing theme of Citizen University, which emphasizes that citizenship is a job in addition to being a status.

    I’ll leave the details, of which there are many, to Eric — on the podium in Redlands or in the pages of his book. The high-concept part of his argument flows from these three axioms:

    • Power creates monopolies, and is winner-take-all. → You must change the game.
    • Power creates a story of why it’s legitimate. → You must change the story.
    • Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum. → You must change the equation.

    He goes on, in practical terms, to illustrate what these mean. The political question of this era (as discussed here) is how the resilient qualities of American civic society match up against the challenges presented by the lurches of Donald Trump. Can the judiciary adhere to pre-2017 standards? How will the Congress fare in its ongoing search for a soul? Will states and cities maintain their policies on the environment, on standards of justice, on treatment of refugees and immigrants? And how, fundamentally, can citizens play a more active and powerful role in the affairs of their nation? These and others are central struggles of our time. And Eric Liu’s book is part of the effort to push the outcome in a positive direction.

  • The New Series on the Vietnam War, and the Mysteries of Historical Resonance

    In roughly the center of this view of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina is the Snow's Island National Historic Landmark. These are the swamplands where the American forces led by Francis Marion applied guerrilla tactics against the British. Google Earth

    The Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 18-hour series on The Vietnam War began its run on PBS on Sunday night and continues through this week and next. I felt about as familiar with that era as I could imagine—with its tensions at the time, with the journalism and literature that came out of it, with the historical assessments, with the war’s role in music and movies and others parts of pop culture and public imagination. Even so I found this a tremendously revealing series. I recommend it very highly. Please find a way to watch—now, or in the many streaming and download alternatives they are making available.

    ***

    As with any attempt to grapple with a topic this vast and complex, and of such emotional and historical consequence, the Burns/Novick series is bound to be controversial. For one example of an avenue of criticism, see this review by veteran Asia-hand correspondent Jim Laurie, who was on-scene in Vietnam and Cambodia during the war.

    Here’s another: When I did an interview with Burns and Novick for the upcoming issue of Amtrak’s The National magazine, I asked them about one of the central themes of their press-tour presentation of the project, as opposed to the video itself. Both Burns and Novick have stressed the idea that the divisions generated by the Vietnam war prefigure the polarization of Trump-era America.

    To me, that seems a little too pat. Even though I argued back at the time that the “class war” elements of Vietnam were a central reason the U.S. remained engaged for so many years, so much has happened between then and now that it’s hard to trace a sensible connection from those times to these. Since the height of the fighting in Vietnam, we’ve had: the end of the draft; the disappearance of the Soviet Union; the emergence of China; multiple dramatic shifts in political mood (the arrivals of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, later Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, were each seen as the dawns of new political eras); the 9/11 attacks; multiple wars; multiple booms and busts; multiple grounds for hope and despair. Donald Trump was on one side of the Vietnam class-war divide, with his student deferments and mysterious physical disqualifications. Figures as politically diverse as John McCain, Al Gore, John Kerry, Jim Mattis, and Jim Webb were on the other. But it’s hard to make a neat match of that cleavage 50 years ago to the multiple axes of disagreement now. To me, it seems easier to trace a line of descent from the Civil War—subject of Ken Burns’s first national-phenomenon film series, back in 1990—to Trump-era divides than from the Vietnam war.

    I lay out this disagreement on a specific point as a set-up for emphasizing  how valuable and informative I think the series is overall. It is remarkable in interleaving the accounts of participants from opposite sides of the same battle— the Americans and South Vietnamese, but also the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong—all describing what they were afraid of, what their plans were, how they reckoned victory and defeat in struggles for control of a particular hill or hamlet. It offers abundant evidence of battlefield bravery and sacrifice, on all sides—but precious few examples of political courage or foresight, especially in the United States. It’s hard to say whether Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon comes off worse for the combination of strategic misjudgment and flat-out dishonesty in management of the war. The White House recordings from both men are spell-binding.

    Please watch. And since most of today’s Americans had not even been born by the time the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, it’s all the more valuable for generations who know nothing about that era first-hand.

    ***

    Further on the theme of linkages between Vietnam and previous American engagements, a reader makes the evocative connection to the first war that troops of the newly formed United States ever fought.

  • The Early Decision Racket, Redux

    To take your mind off politics, at least politics of the national-election variety, let’s take a look back on some of the oddities of the American college-admissions process, for which millions of families are gearing up right now.

    Back in 2001, the Atlantic’s September issue featured a big story I had done, called “The Early-Decision Racket.” It was about the way elite-college admissions had been transformed, and warped, through the Faustian bargain of the “early decision” system. This is the arrangement in which a student’s chance of getting into a selective college goes up, but the student’s ability to choose another college, or bargain and comparison-shop for better financial-aid deals, goes away.

    (By the way: that article got a lot of attention during the first ten days of September, 2001. Then on September 11 … )

    A note that just arrived is an excuse for re-posting a link to that article, and for a reminder of how distorting the whole admissions process has become. Here’s the letter:

    Today, I came across your article " The Early-Decision Racket" from September 2001 and, though it took lot of patience in this twitter crazed short attention span mind to read, it might as well have been written yesterday in September 2017. Amazing that after 16 yrs, an article can still be so fresh as if time stopped.

    I wanted to share a story from my family and it fits the pattern perfectly.

    My niece is a senior at [a prestigious private school]. Super smart kid with 3.98/4 GPA, SAT score in 1560/1600, loaded with extra-curriculars, Mayor's youth council chairperson, community service, UN youth assembly , etc. etc.... You get the picture.

    Her mom is a wealthy [professional].

    I have been working with my niece to help with college admission process.   She is super crazy about [some Ivy League and East Coast schools]. Wants to get into Penn but is torn about Georgetown and its Early Action program.  Has done summer courses at Duke but doesn’t want to apply there. Is also interested in Northwestern U. [Also dealing with Tulane.]

    Every word of your article was like reading my own current experience in this  " ginned up marketing game played to achieve top ranks through selectivity and yields". The ultimate game is get that spigot running and build endowment wealth….

    Colleges and parents are both willing players in the game

    Some of the contributing factors

    (1) More students realizing that their best shot at Ivy ranked college is EA or ED and taking that chance

    (2) More Asian-Americans are coming of age. Ultra-competitive kids born to very educated parents (with both having college degrees) who migrated to US in the 90s and afterwards during the technology boom.

  • Andrew Kelly / Reuters

    Why Hillary Clinton's Book Is Actually Worth Reading

    It’s the rare interesting work by a politician—and it offers an important critique of the press.

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Why the Republican Party Will Come to Regret Rolling Back DACA

    The United States has thrived as a nation capable of absorbing immigrants—and the GOP turns away from that advantage at its own peril.

  • Remembering Kukula Kapoor Glastris

    Kukula Glastris, who died this week at age 59. LifePost

    Many people who knew or worked with Kukula Glastris described her as “the kindest” or “the most generous” person they had known. It’s a big world, and titles like that can be contested. But I’ve never met anyone whose combination of personal goodness, plus intellectual and professional abilities, exceeded Kukula’s. The large number of people fortunate to have known her now offer support to her husband Paul, and their children Adam and Hope, at the heartbreaking news of her death. Early this summer she developed respiratory problems, which steadily worsened until she died last Tuesday night, at age 59.

    In the professional realm, Kukula became best-known for her work as books editor and very skilled story-magician at The Washington Monthly, the magazine of which her husband Paul became editor-in-chief and impresario, succeeding Charles Peters, more than 15 years ago. The psychology of editing requires a surface of encouragement/love/flattery — the ideal first words from any editor, to any writer, on first seeing any draft on any topic, are “Oh, this is going to be great! So wonderful! Now let’s just do this and this and...” — over a core of resolve. (“We’re not quite there yet, let’s look at this last section one more time...”) Kukula had both of these elements in abundance, along with the intellectual insight to know how a changed phrase, or a cut, or an addition, or an allusion could make the story stronger.

  • Xavier Becerra on the California ‘Resistance’

    California's Attorney General Xavier Becerra (right) on how, whether, and why his state will "resist" Trump-era national policies. Another Californian on the left. Aspen Ideas Festival

    Last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I emceed an hour-long discussion with Xavier Becerra, the new Attorney General of California, on how the nation’s most populous state planned to deal with a national administration that was taking a very non-California approach on topics from climate change to immigration. Becerra, a son of immigrant parents and graduate of Stanford and Stanford Law School, had been a long-serving congressman from a predominantly Latino district on the north side of Los Angeles. Michelle Cottle did a very nice profile of him for the Atlantic a few months ago. When Kamala Harris, who had been the state’s Attorney General, resigned to take her seat as a new U.S. Senator this year, Governor Jerry Brown—who (among his many other roles) had been Harris’s predecessor as AG — invited Becerra back from service in Washington to Sacramento, where as it happens Becerra had grown up.

    There is no video of the session (that I’m aware of), but a Soundcloud audio file has just gone online. You can listen to it here or here. I found it enlightening—about Becerra himself, about California, about the country.

  • Trump’s Oval Office: ‘But What About the Chairs?’

    One desk, one big chair, four little chairs.
    Carolyn Kaster / Ap

    On Friday—a few hours before Donald Trump pardoned ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall on the Texas coast—I posted an item about Donald Trump’s newly redecorated Oval Office, which differed from his predecessors’ in one notable way. I asked readers if they could spot the main difference—which, for me, was the proliferation of flags beyond what most of his predecessors had displayed, especially beribboned military battle flags.

    A huge amount of mail came in about another aspect of the new office, which I hadn’t noticed or mentioned. Obviously this does not “matter” remotely as much as the genuine emergencies now underway. But there was so much correspondence, and enough of it dealt with patterns of leadership and management, that I am reprinting some of it here.

    (Editing note: I have shortened most of these messages, but otherwise I have left them unedited from the form in which they arrived.)

    These first few are about the message of the Oval Office photos that I hadn’t mentioned:

    Re your post on the Oval flags: Another detail that struck me in the pictures of the Oval was the position of the chairs near the president’s desk. Trump has four facing him, all the others have one or two on the side. I’m certain I’m reading too much into this, but: a president with no real confidents? A president who takes no counsel? A president who speaks “to” people and not “with” people.

    It may very well be they aren’t always arranged that way, a striking detail for me nonetheless.

    Pop culture apropos: I remember one of the final scenes ever of the West Wing being so powerful precisely because of those chairs. As I recall, the new president’s staff briefs him, they exit the Oval, and then the chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford, takes his place in the side chair and begins to advise the president. A simple scene, but a powerful demonstration of what it means to be a counselor to a president.

    To show what the reader is talking about, here’s a close-up view of the chairs at Ronald Reagan’s desk, where the real-life counterparts of staffers like Whitford’s might have sat.

    Ronald Reagan’s office, via White House Historical Association. Other pre-Trump presidents had a similar arrangement of advisors’ chairs at the side of the president’s desk.

    From another reader, on the same theme:

    Another difference in the pictures of the offices that struck me was the arrangement of the chairs by the President’s desk.  Every other President has chairs for advisors that are adjacent to the sides of the desk, near to the President, suggesting perhaps a closer, more collaborative relationship between the President and his advisors.

    President Trump has the only configuration in which these chairs are drawn back from the President and placed such that the desk is positioned fully between the President and his advisors.

    The non-Trump arrangement is actually an odd, non-customary configuration to my eyes, but in the pictures you included in your article each and every President other than Trump set up the chairs that way.    

    And:

    The other significant change is the number of chairs placed in front of the Resolute Desk.

    The maximum in the other pictures is three,  for Eisenhower, and recent presidents seem to have had two. Trump has gone to four as a standard.

    Of course, presidents had more chairs brought in when meetings got larger, but that is not the point; rather, it is that as a matter of course, Trump is *performing* in front of four chairs, and other presidents needed only two chairs for their standard meetings.

    One more way Trump is fouling the presidency—making performance the core, and governance only an occasional side use of the Oval.

    And:

    The most striking difference between Trump's Oval Office and every single one of the others, aside from his penchant for gold, is this: The arrangement of chairs in all of the other layouts places the president among his guests while Trump's place his guests as spectators or audience members.

    No one sits next to Trump. No one sits behind Trump. All chairs are in front of the desk, facing Trump. There is a single chair pictured that, while still in front of his desk, does not point directly at him, but it looks like it’s there in the event that it needs to be pulled in front of the desk.

    And:

    When you proposed we try spotting the difference in Trump’s office, the first thing I noticed was not the answer you provided. Only in the picture of Trump’s new lay out were the chairs of those with whom he is meeting, on the complete other side of his desk. Others must sit across from him and be separated by a large desk. All the other oval office photos had the meeting chairs set at the sides of the desk, or even behind the desk on the same side as the president.

    This is interviewing and meeting 101. In order to convey that you are on the same level  as those with whom you are working or collaborating, you eliminate the large furniture (aka space) that physically blocks the interaction. It could be interpreted that Trump has asked for the desk to continue to separate him from others to preserve his position over them.

    And:

    The other thing I noticed besides the flags was the placement of the chairs. Previous presidents had chairs surrounding their desk, whereas Trump has them placed in front of him and away from him.  I'm not sure if that's a permanent set up, but it seems like it could be a power move in his mind to put advisors in their place, whereas other presidents were confident enough to work with their advisors and acknowledge that they needed help, and not keep them at a distance.

    And:

    While I agree with you about the flags, … both the quantity and layout are perhaps telling of how different this president works. With all previous images showing a couple of chairs next to the desk, indicating maybe that previous presidents worked closely with a couple advisors, this shows four chairs in front of the desk. Could that be his penchant for lording over a court? Just found the chair layout as interesting as the flags.

    And just about finally for now:

    Even more telling than flags is the “body language” position of the chairs near the Resolute Desk.

    Notice how all other presidents have the chairs at the sides of the desk, suggesting “conversation, discussion, sharing”; Trump on the other hand has placed the chairs on the OTHER side of the desk, signifying “Who is Boss, Greater/Lesser, Grantor, Grantee, Interviewer, Applicant”—quite the opposite.

    And this behavior is directed at HIS CHOSEN staff … Imagine how he treats strangers.

  • Brian Snyder / Reuters

    Why the Arpaio Pardon Matters

    The president chose to pardon a public official using state power for racist ends.  

  • Carolyn Kester / AP

    Donald Trump's Telling Change to the Oval Office

    The president is returning to a freshly renovated White House—and it includes an unusual display.

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    The Republican Party Is Enabling an Increasingly Dangerous Demagogue

    With every passing day, the stain and responsibility for Trump’s actions stick more lastingly to the Republican establishment.

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Trump's Depressingly Normal Speech About Afghanistan

    The president’s defiance of the conventional wisdom on Afghanistan had been one of his strengths—but on Monday, he embraced the same approach as his predecessors.