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.
James Fallows is based in Washington, D.C., as a staff writer at The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for more than 40 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Shanghai, Beijing, and London. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a Fellow of the American Geographical Society. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of U.S. News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot.
Fallows won the National Magazine Award for his 2002 story “Iraq: The Fifty-First State?” warning about the consequences of invading Iraq; he has been a finalist four other times. He has also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his book National Defense and an N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America foundation. His books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. Before Our Towns, his most recent book was China Airborne (2012). He is married to Deborah Fallows, the author of the book Dreaming in Chinese. Together from 2013 to 2017 they traveled across the United States for their American Futures project, which led to Our Towns. They have two married sons and five grandchildren.
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Over the years, I’ve frequently mentioned my friend Michael Jones, a computer scientist and geography whiz. Nine years ago, he was a leading figure in my Atlantic story “Hacked,” the saga of what my wife Deb and I learned when her email account was taken over by international hackers. For an Atlantic column around the same time, I interviewed him on the way omnipresent, always-available mapping was likely to change people’s habits and lives. And before any of this, he had added to world knowledge with his explanation of “Boiled Frog” science. As he laid out in this guest post, careful experiments in 19th-century Germany established that a frog would indeed sit still in a pot of ever-hotter water—but only if its brain had already been removed.
Outside our household, Michael Jones is known, among other things, as one of the guiding forces behind Google Earth and Google Maps. When you see your neighborhood, or your planet, from above on a computer, or follow turn-by-turn directions on your phone, he is one of the people you have to thank.
The 2020 Patron’s Medal has been awarded to Michael Jones for his contribution to the development of geospatial information.
Baroness Chalker said: “Michael Jones is a role model for future generations of geographers. From his beginnings as a software engineer, inventing and filing his own patents, through to his role as Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, his inspiring career trajectory is charted by his vision to redefine mapping from static lines and symbols to an interactive geographical web of context and information. It’s hard to overstate the importance that Google Earth and Google Maps has had on the public worldwide and how Michael’s pioneering work has democratised and popularised cartography and spatial awareness. Today we recognise his extraordinary contribution and his continued advocacy for the benefits of geography. He whole heartedly deserves the Society’s highest recognition.”
Michael Jones said: “This recognition is a signal honour for an idea that started in my head and which, through the work of many, resulted in the Google Earth used by billions of people around the world. On behalf of colleagues who laboured to make this dream of Earth and Maps a reality, and in full credit to the inspiring attainments of all who have come before us in the quest to better understand the Earth, I can only say that the ‘Earth-in-your-hand’ idea has never had a greater friend than the Royal Geographical Society, to whom we humbly offer our gratitude.”
As a fellow Yank, I will razz Michael for writing “signal honour”—but it couldn’t be more deserved, with the British u or without. Congratulations. And you can read more about his story and outlook in this interview.
Earlier this week I mentioned the surprisingly important role that craft brewing had played in downtown renewal across the country over the past decade. And I talked with one of the pioneers of that movement, Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company, about how this part of America’s startup economy was likely to fare.
Here are reports from two companies of a similar spirit but entirely different scale from Koch’s nationally distributed Samuel Adams brand. One is in northern Minnesota; the other, on the edge of the Mojave desert in Southern California. Each illustrates a path small, locally conscious firms are taking to survive the current economic and public health disaster.
Duluth, Minnesota: Over the past four years, I’ve visited and written about the small Bent Paddle Brewing Company of Duluth—and have retained interest because the saga of this startup has involved a lot more than its (very good) craft beer.
The two young couples who founded the company ten years ago—Karen and Bryon Tonnis, and Laura and Colin Mullen—wanted to see if their new little business could be part of a larger revival in the tattered, ex-industrial Lincoln Park district of Duluth. As Deb Fallows and I saw in repeat visits and reported here and here, they had begun succeeding in that neighborhood-revival role—plus others, like being part of a Duluth’s emergence as an outdoors and tourist destination, and helping protect the waters of deep, cold Lake Superior, on whose western tip Duluth sits.
Each time we’ve visited their part of town, we’ve seen a few more visitors, another restaurant or food truck, another little office or store. Meanwhile, Bent Paddle’s main business, as a taproom and brewery, continued to grow. Every time we talked, the four founders stressed that they’d grown mainly thanks to community supports (including advice from local business people and loans from local banks), so they felt an obligation to be part of the community’s long-term development.
But what now? This spring, Bent Paddle’s own taproom was of course closed, as were the restaurants and bars through which it sold most of its output. Could a little business like this survive, and could its surrounding neighborhood? This week I spoke with Laura Mullen in Duluth to ask how Bent Paddle had fared.
“During March and April our business was down about 50 percent,” she said. “No events at our site,” which had been an ever-busier civic gathering center. (We once saw a local-writer’s club holding a meeting in a side room.) “No sales to bars or restaurants,” which were about half of its total volume. “Draft beer was not happening anywhere.” Bent Paddle had to buy back some of the kegs it had shipped to bars and restaurants. Other kegs, already in warehouses, went past their shelf life and could no longer be sold.
Fortunately from the brewers’ point of view, Minnesota classified liquor stores as some of the “essential” businesses that could stay open despite a general lockdown. “That made us ‘essential workers,’” Mullen said, “because we were supplying products to liquor stores.”
Among the customers they could still reach in Duluth and elsewhere, Bent Paddle saw the same pattern that Jim Koch, of Sam Adams, recently described to me: People who would otherwise have gone out to a restaurant or bar were in many cases “trading up” to buy nicer food or drink to have at home, still for a lower overall cost. (A fascinating report in Nielsen.com shows exactly how much at-home drinking would have to increase to offset the near-elimination of bar and restaurant revenues. Medical experts are on the alert for evidence that increased home drinking is creating medical or behavioral risks—beyond those of the pandemic itself.)
Laura Mullen said that she expected this year’s sales, overall, to be about 20 percent lower than last year’s. Of the company’s 44 staff members before the shutdowns, it laid off 10. All but one has now returned. The company received a PPP loan to help cover the salaries. For the moment, Minnesota has allowed bars and restaurants to reopen for distanced outside service, and at 50 percent previous capacity indoor.
What were the lessons of this company’s survival, so far? Laura Mullen suggested these:
An immediate pivot: “When the taproom closed, we could still do to-go beer,” she said. “The minute [the state order] hit, after we shut the taproom we created all these signs and online videos,” promoting the idea that Bent Paddle was still open and explaining how to buy very safely canned beer to take home.
Going all-in on masks and distancing: None of the signs and videos that Bent Paddle put up were about resisting or working around the shutdown or distancing order. All were about how to work with the rules. On March 20, they posted a three-minute Facebook video in which Laura Mullen walked potential customers all through the stages of picking up beer safely from their brewery. “We get a few Yelp comments complaining about our procedures,” she told me. “But we got many more complimenting us and saying that our safety protocols were top-notch, and they could feel comfortable coming here.”
Reliance on the local: When I first met them, the four Bent Paddle founders told me how important local-bank support had been when they started the company. Laura Mullen said the same was true for surviving the current emergency. “A lot of people who had bigger-bank relationships had trouble getting their PPP loans,” she said. “We have a small local bank,” whose officers the company had worked with for years, “and we were able to get things arranged very quickly. We’ve heard that across the board, that people dealing with smaller banks are in better shape.”
Concern for the neighborhood: Bend Paddle’s success has been an important part of the Lincoln Park area’s revitalization. Now people are still coming to pick up beer, but not staying to shop in the little boutiques and smaller businesses. Their margins are thinner, and their products are less recession-proof than beer. Mullen said that she was even more concerned about longer-term effects on the neighborhood than on her own company.
Redlands, California: More than a dozen years ago, when I was living in China, I visited my original hometown of Redlands several times (for family-illness reasons) and noted the emergence of a craft-brew industry there. The pioneering local company was sited right at a small airport and was named, with an aviation theme, Hangar 24.
On recent visits to Redlands I’ve noted the emergence of a new company, called Escape Craft Brewery. It’s located in an unglamorous commercial complex not far from Interstate 10, but its vibe and style are of the tropical carefree getaway. “We designed the name Escape for that idea,” Melissa Fisher, who cofounded the brewery with her husband Josh six years ago, told me last week. “You can’t always get away. But you can always escape. You can sit outside, open a beer, and be someplace else for a few minutes.”
Before opening the company, Josh Fisher was an avid home brewer, with a day job as a firefighter. Melissa worked as an aesthetician in a salon. They spent two years scouting the area for an appropriate site—with parking, brewing space and facilities, affordable rent, appropriate zoning, outdoor patio space for the usually warm Southern California weather, and so on.
They found it in a modest storefront close to the I-10 freeway, amid discount stores and carpet-cleaning shops. Based mainly on the quality of their products, Escape’s beers and ambience grew in popularity. It expanded into a next-door property and had 10,000 square feet of space, about half of it for a tasting-room and taproom, and half for a game room where, according to Melissa Fisher, they also had live music, private parties, “dog adoptions” and other civic events. This August they had been planning to open a second site in Redlands, with renovation of an an abandoned warehouse building much closer to downtown. They were also preparing for an expansion to the resort-coastal city of Laguna Niguel.
In March, most of their business went away, all at once. No taproom traffic, which had been almost 80 percent of their total revenue. No private events, no live music, no community gatherings—and on top of that, no sales to the bars and restaurants that had been carrying Escape’s beers. “A couple of places even asked if they could send their kegs back,” Melissa Fisher said. “Usually that’s illegal, but the rules were lifted this time”—and they were legally able to re-package some of the product as “beer to go.”
How would they survive? “I think that if this had been in our first year or two, it would have been monumentally bad for us,” Melissa Fisher said. “We probably could not have made it.” But in Escape’s six years of operation, it had built a local following, and the Fishers had saved their profits to invest in their planned expansions (and instead are using them to cushion losses now).
Like Bent Paddle, Escape quickly shifted, mainly to take-out sales. Instead of draft beer poured into glasses in the tap rooms, they would sell beer in cans for customers to pick up. (Side note: a decade ago, I was surprised by the shift among craft brewers from glass bottles to aluminum cans. Now the shift is all but complete. I can barely remember the last time I bought beer that came in a bottle.) It quickly put up a website for online orders of to-go beer and saw many of its longtime customers make that change.
This kept the doors open, but with an unpleasant real-world surprise. In the previous post I mentioned the all-important role of something most beer customers are barely aware of: the beer-wholesalers business. In the case of Escape, the challenging practicality was how hard and expensive it could be for a small operation like theirs to try to switch to canned-beer sales.
Start with the cans themselves. “A big brewer might pay 8 or 10 cents per can,” Fisher said. Because they’re buying in small volume, “We’re paying somewhere between 34 and 74 cents per can, and that’s before we put the label on it”—or the beer into it. “Then you run into the shortages because there’s a rush on everything”—of cans, of labels, of glass growler bottles, of aluminum “crowler” cans. Before the pandemic, state regulators had to pre-approve the labels for canned beer. Now they have waived some of the rules, and Fisher and her team have been filling in part of the label information with Sharpies.
At the taproom, a pint of beer might have sold for six or seven dollars, so a round of four pints would bring in more than $25. Those same four pints, as a take-out order, go for $10 or $12, of which three dollars or more would be just for the labels and cans.
So the Fishers are selling beer but at a tiny margin, which barely covers their costs. Before, with full service, they would typically have six or seven employees on a Friday night. Now, to manage take-out, they have one or two. (Several of the employees have voluntarily reduced their hours, so others can have them.) Escape has expanded outdoor seating, in the parking areas and loading dock outside their tap room. “We’re lucky to have that space,” Melissa Fisher said. “But when it’s 98 to 102 degrees—even when we have cooling machines, even with a beer—not everyone can handle being outside.” Like many other brewers and distillers, they’ve also been selling a line of hand sanitizer.
“What we’re making now, is keeping the lights on,” she said. “And we’ve had a huge amount of support from people who’ve become our friends.” Because of their savings, and adaptability, they expect to keep going, and ultimately to expand. But what they’re doing now isn’t sustainable, she said. “Something has to change.”
Something does. Stories like these deserve notice, in my view, because little businesses like Bent Paddle and Escape have played such an outsize role in bringing vitality and local-connectedness to so many American towns.
Coming next, two other stories, with other implications, from northern Florida and the Bay Area of California. And after the jump, reactions from two brewers.
In response to the item earlier this week, Jim Koch, of Boston Beer Company adds this point. He is discussing the recent change in Massachusetts beer-distributor laws, which his company support even though it will help all local beer companies except his:
I realized there was one major thing I missed in our discussion that makes what happened in MA surprising in a business context. That is the craft beer ethos that we are as much colleagues as competitors and that if we all act for the good of each other, we will all, in the long term, benefit even if there is short term sacrifice.
I think that attitude, which often means sharing “trade secrets” and ideas and helping each other out with ingredients or equipment, has been an important part of our success and is rare in US business. It also makes for a happier professional life if you can look at your competitors as colleagues and friends. It is exemplified in the craft brewer practice that when you’re having beers with each other, each of you orders the other’s beer rather than your own.
And, a note from someone on the other end of the craft-brewing spectrum from Koch. This person writes from Florida, and from a small, newish company, but he shares Koch’s concern about arcane distribution laws. He writes:
As a small craft brewer in Florida … we will survive due to the support of our community and our location. Some of my good friends in this industry may not make it. [One reason is …] beer distributors and their death grip on the craft beer industry - it’s important to our overall survival.
We have a very good relationship with our distributor. They are good people and our goals are aligned. But Florida franchise law, as it is, makes me pray these goals remain aligned because should they diverge, just like any Florida brewer - I will most certainly be on the losing side of any dispute. I’d like to see this inequity balanced for the good of the industry.”
A few decades ago, “American beer” had the same connotation in the world of brewing as Velveeta-style “American cheese” had for connoisseurs of Stilton or Brie. Mid-20th-century American beer culture was known for its handful of giant breweries, and for the unadventurous, bland lagers they pumped out.
In those days, brewers in England or Belgium or Germany would roll their eyes at what Yanks considered “good beer.” It was like French or German bakers talking about American white bread.
Now, of course, the tables have turned. I’ve seen little brewpubs from Beijing to Bogota, and Athens to Amsterdam, that feature “American-style craft beer.” It’s easy to make fun of the recent era of micro-brews and macro-hops. But the modern rise of American craft brewing has been a genuine success story of entrepreneurship, localism, small-business creativity, and in many places, of civic renewal.
Before everything changed because of the pandemic, America’s craft-brew industry was still growing—though more slowly and unevenly than in the true boom era a few years earlier. (There are fascinating details in this BrewBound industry analysis from a few months ago.) The number of breweries in the country had fallen below 100 by the early 1980s, in the depths of mega-brewer concentration. In 2018, it passed 7,000 and was still rising.
But what will happen now? I’ve been following up with breweries large and small around the country, and I’ll begin with the views of Jim Koch (pronounced cook), well known from TV commercials for Sam Adams beer and as the face of the company he co-founded with Rhonda Kallman in 1984.
I called Koch partly because of his role as one of the pioneers of American craft brewing, which I described in an Atlantic article about him on the 30th anniversary of the company’s founding. (Among the other significant pioneers were Ken Grossman, of Sierra Nevada in Chico, California; Jack McAuliffe, of the New Albion brewery in Sonoma; Fritz Maytag, of Anchor Steam in San Francisco; and Jimmy Carter, of the White House. It’s a story for another time, but Carter helped make the modern craft movement possible by deregulating home brewing in the late 1970s.)
I also wanted to talk with Koch because he’s been in the news. Many things about American brewing still operate in the shadow of 1920s-era Prohibition. During its nearly 14-year run, from the start of 1920 to near the end of 1933, Prohibition’s ban on legal drinking killed off most of what had been a thriving local brewery industry across the country. (Before widespread refrigeration, beer was mainly a locally made-and-consumed product, since it was hard to ship.) Even after the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, states were freer to regulate business involving alcohol than most other forms of commerce, and many burdensome regulations remained. These included the home-brewing ban that Jimmy Carter finally overturned, and onerous “distributor” laws that distort the industry now.
“You don’t hear about lumber wholesalers who are fabulously rich,” Jim Koch told me last week. His point was: You do hear about beer wholesalers and distributors. For instance, John McCain became rich when he married his second wife, Cindy Hensley, who had inherited control of her family’s hugely lucrative Hensley distributorship in Arizona. Lumber mills, and most other businesses in the United States, are allowed to adjust their business plans and sell online or directly to customers if they choose, without going through wholesalers. By contrast, in most states brewers large or small may not legally sell directly to customers (outside their own taprooms, allowed in many states). Instead they must go through distributors—who can end up making as much from each case of beer as the brewer does.
In the Sam Adams home territory of Massachusetts, the relevant law was one that, in effect, permanently bound a brewery to whatever distributor it had initially done business with. “In Boston, I can only sell my beer to a single distributor,” Koch told me. “And retailers can’t get it from anyone but that distributor. This might have made sense 50 or 80 years ago, when the wholesalers were quite small and the brewers were all-powerful.” But now, he said, the dynamic has flipped. The brewers are small and proliferating new businesses. The distributors—only two main ones in the Boston area—had much more power, and if they decided not to feature a new brewery or line of beer, there was very little the brewer could do.
As the craft brew industry has grown, complaints about this relationship have as well. For instance, five years ago, in an online Beer Advocate forum about possible changes in the Massachusetts law, one person wrote:
Imagine you're a growing local brand (Night Shift, Newburyport, Notch, etc) that is suddenly railroaded by Not Your Fathers Root Beer and beers of its ilk flooding the market and you end up relegated to the back-end of your distributor’s priority list. Maybe you'll get their attention again when the current fad dies down, but maybe not. But hey, you signed a contract 6 months ago and are stuck for life as an also ran in your distributors portfolio.
Over the past decade, Koch and other Massachusetts brewers have waged a campaign to change the Massachusetts laws that in essence permanently bind brewers to their distributors. This month, there was a breakthrough, and one in which Koch and Sam Adams played a crucial part.
Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam Adams (and has now merged with Dogfish Head, originally from Delaware), is by far the biggest “small” brewer in Massachusetts. Thus it is also the most lucrative for its wholesaler. This summer, the brewers’ alliance pushing for reform agreed with wholesalers, after years of haggling, on a compromise. The wholesalers were willing to give up on the lock-in provision, but only for breweries producing less than 250,000 barrels a year. As everyone involved was aware, that exclusion applied to a category-of-one. The compromise would mean that all craft breweries in Massachusetts would be freed from the existing restriction—except the Boston Beer Company, which produces more than 4 million barrels of Sam Adams each year.
Jim Koch’s willingness to support a reform that would help everyone but him was reportedly the key in moving the reform legislation forward. As Matt Murphy of State House News Service wrote,
Koch ... agreed in this latest round of talks to support a compromise that would exclude his company.
“That was a big point in breaking the iceberg. Clearly this was much more difficult to resolve if Jim Koch and Sam Adams was still in the mix. Again, good faith in an effort to help the smaller craft brewers,” Senate President Karen Spilka said.
In a statement, Koch said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made some brewers particularly vulnerable to wholesalers who might prioritize other products, and predicted that without reform some might not survive. He said that despite some concessions by wholesalers to include larger brewers, it was clear that the distributors would not support a bill that included Boston Beer.
“From Lawrence to the Berkshires, craft brewers serve as economic engines, employers and draw tourism to their communities. If brewers have to wait another two years for a bill to be considered, some will not survive,” Koch said in a statement provided to the News Service by the company. “Boston Beer had to make a decision. At the end of the day, that decision was to sacrifice ourselves by being excluded from Franchise Law reform in order to protect the hundreds of our fellow craft brewers in the state.”
“We’d been working on this for a long time,” Koch told me. “And then COVID hit. A lot of small breweries had tap rooms they relied on”—but those were ordered closed. “The wholesaler became life-or-death for a number of our members. It became clear that if we didn’t make a change, some of our members [small brewers] were not going to make it.”
Koch said that when the wholesalers accepted a deal that would liberate all companies except his, he had to make a decision. But, “I didn’t have to think very long about what was the right thing to do,” he said. “We had to take the deal, even though it did not include me.” Koch, who is not quite the good-old-boy he portrays in TV ads, elaborated that “from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls” he couldn’t find a rationale for declining to support the agreement. (A dozen years earlier, as described in this article, he had taken a similar hit for the team. During the world hop shortage of 2008, he had shared some of Sam Adams’s strategic stockpile of hops with smaller brewers—as many of the smaller brewers have attested.)
And what is the prospect for brewers in general, through the pandemic and shutdown? “So far, it has not been quite as devastating as we all thought,” Koch told me. Why? “Because people are actually drinking the same amount of alcohol, and seem to be trading up to more premium forms.” The bars and restaurants are suffering, because fewer people can go there. The brewers are not suffering as badly, because people are buying as much or more of their product to drink at home.
“I am assuming tap rooms won’t be closed forever,” he said. “Suppose it’s two years until things are ‘Back to normal,’ so that people are not freaked out about going out in public.” The question, he said, is how many of the small companies can survive in the meanwhile.
Even before this crisis, Koch said, craft brewing had been a volatile though growing industry. Even in “normal” times, the turnover rate for restaurants or brewpubs might be 10 percent per year, he said. “Suppose 10 percent of craft brewers will not be able to reopen. But those that have a sound, solid business model, and are creative with new products, I believe will survive.” He pointed out that no sane person had started up a microbrewery primarily in hopes of ROI. “They loved beer. They wanted to be part of the community. Those motivations will be part of all of our getting through this adversity. And maybe your taproom will be a little more important to the community than it was before.”
Next up: Reports from some of these much smaller brewers, and from another major player.
This note is to kick off a resumed set of chronicles in the “Our Towns” series, after time away for a long Atlantic project on the origins of this era’s public-health and economic disaster.
The results of that project are here: “Three Weeks That Changed Everything.” If you’re wondering, the three weeks I have in mind are: January 1, 2020—when first mentions of an outbreak of a new “pneumonia type disease” in central China would have appeared in the CIA-produced “President’s Daily Brief,” at the White House, which in normal governing circumstances would have triggered the beginnings of a coordinated federal response—through January 22, when the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 turned up in the United States. I argue that at the start of that time, it might have been possible to contain the disease near its point of origin, before it became a global disaster. By the end of that time, the U.S. had made fateful decisions that put us on our current catastrophic path.
In a bleak way, the past few months have underscored a message Deb Fallows and I have been discussing for years: At a time of federal-government paralysis and worse, the functionality and cohesion at many points in local- and regional-level America have been the main source of resilience.
I am careful to say “at many points” rather than “everywhere,” because some governors, and a handful of mayors, have followed the disastrous federal example of treating the pandemic as another front in the national-politics war, rather than as public-health emergency. But most governors (of both parties), plus an overwhelming majority of mayors (whose offices are usually not strongly partisan), and a larger and larger share of corporate, private, and non-profit organizations have offered such traction, practical-mindedness, and civic spirit as the nation can display at the moment.
Of course, these dispersed efforts are not enough, in coping with a disaster of this scale. If national governance fails, the whole nation suffers—as does the world, which in previous disease crises had relied on the U.S. to take the lead (again, as my Atlantic piece argued). But local, statewide, regional, and private/NGOs are what we have work with—and learn from, and expand—right now.
To kick things off today, three developments that shed light on how the parts of America that still work can be applied to the parts now so badly failing.
I know, I know: Another commission report, with another lofty title, from another worthy institution, grappling with another of our biggest public challenges. But this one is different and is worth paying attention to. (For the record: I saw an early version of the report but had nothing to do with its preparation or contents. The web version of the report is on the Academy’s site here, and a free downloadable PDF is here.)
The report’s diagnosis of America’s civic, cultural, and governing problems will be recognizable to most readers. The real payoff is the recommendations. There are 31 of them, in six categories, and they’re both impressively ambitious and surprisingly practical-minded, which means that—in theory—they are achievable.
For instance, the sweep of the ideas involves proposals as consequential (and logical) as changing the Supreme Court to fixed 18-year terms for justices, with one nomination every two years; or switching to ranked-choice voting in presidential, congressional, and state elections, to avoid third-party “spoiler” results; or adopting the Australian model in which voting in federal elections is an expectation-of-citizenship, like showing up for jury duty. Significant as such changes might be, only one of the 31 proposals would require amending the Constitution—all the rest could be done by Congress or state legislatures, or would require no legal changes at all. The one exception is this—essentially, correcting the Supreme Court’s ruinous Citizens United ruling from 2010:
RECOMMENDATION 1.5 Amend the Constitution to authorize the regulation of election contributions and spending to eliminate undue influence of money in our political system, and to protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, political participation, and meaningful representation in government.
There’s a lot more in the report, not all of which I agree with, but the vast majority of which would make America more workable at all levels of governance. Another example: stronger incentives to encourage a year of national service. And allowing states to create multi-member congressional districts, if in so doing they could reduce gerrymandering and ideologically “safe” seats.
Congratulations to the three directors of the project, Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu, and to their colleagues who held meetings and citizen-hearings all around the country in coming up with their recommendations. This should be one of the roadmaps for digging out of the current rubble. For more on the fixed-term Supreme Court proposal, see a note* at the end of this item.
Also: If you’re looking for a wry, quickly readable, yet informed and edgy discussion of the same topic, I highly recommend Democracy In One Book or Less, by David Litt. Readers of Litt’s previous book, Thanks, Obama, will need little prodding to get his new work. Litt was a young White House speechwriter for Barack Obama, and that previous book, published in 2017, was one of the funnier and more self-aware entries in the special niche-literary category of speechwriters’ memoirs. His new book is not exactly like Schoolhouse Rock, the corny-but-informative ’70s-era video series on how democracy works, including such classics as “I’m Just a Bill.” But it’s in the same spirit: whimsy and pop culture, enlisted toward the end of knowledge. Here’s the Washington Post review of Litt’s book. Read it!
And in the same “bonus reading tips” spirit, please check out Joe Mathews, of Zócalo Public Square, on the useful thought experiment of California declaring independence (it won’t happen, but it’s clarifying to think about); and Quint Studer, a successful businessman who has become a civic leader in Pensacola, Florida, on how to broaden understanding of what it takes for democracies to survive.
2) Right to Start, from the Right to Start Fund and Victor Hwang:
Victor Hwang, originally trained as a lawyer, is a longtime tech entrepreneur and startup evangelist. I came to know him in his years with the entrepreneur-minded Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City. While there he emphasized the foundation’s findings that a huge share of America’s net job growth comes from brand-new, startup firms. Bigger firms obviously employ more people, but as time goes on they have little net job creation.
The graph below, produced by the Kauffman Foundation, illustrates the pattern: In most recent years, long-established firms (gray line) either shed more jobs than they create, or add only modest numbers overall. By contrast, new firms (blue line) have added one to two million jobs nearly every year. The point is obvious once you think about it: Since startup firms, by definition, have no existing jobs to lose, every job they create is a net plus. But Hwang and his Kauffman colleagues have long emphasized a less obvious implication: that if an economy wants new jobs, it needs to foster the creation of new firms.
Now Hwang has devoted himself full-time to policies at the national, state, and local level that will make it easier rather than harder to start a small business, a small factory, even (someday) a small restaurant. Obviously this is all the more important now, as the small businesses that have been so crucial in city-by-city revival (as I described here) have come under new, intense pressure.
At Kauffman, Hwang helped write the “America’s New Business Plan” policy guideline, which begins this way:
America’s future depends on entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs not only embody the American spirit, they also power our economy. The new businesses they start account for nearly all net new job creation… [Yet] starting and building a business has become harder and rarer in most of America….
America remains a nation with vivid entrepreneurial dreams. More than 60% of Americans have a dream business in mind they would love to create, and more than 40% would quit their job and start a business in the next six months if they had the tools and resources they needed...
There is a hole at the center of our economic discussion where hope should be.
Victor Hwang and his colleagues wrote that, and the rest of the manifesto, before the pandemic upended everything. But I think their recommendations for state legislators and regulators (here), for local officials and policy makers (here), and for federal candidates and office-holders (here) are worth your time and attention.
Update: Victor Hwang’s organization has just released a video from Tulsa, about “The Legacy of Black Wall Street” there. The reference is of course to the “Tulsa Race Massacre” of 1921, whose centennial the city is planning to observe in appropriate ways next year.
3) The Career Certificates Program, from Grow with Google:
Back at the dawn of time, I wrote an Atlantic cover story called “The Case Against Credentialism.” It argued that the American higher-education system and associated “meritocracy” had less and less to do with the abilities that should enable people of different backgrounds to get ahead, or with the professional competence that society needed.
That is: Parents understood that getting children into the right preschool helped them get into the right prep school, which helped them get the right test scores, which helped them get into the right college, which helped them … in some general way. (Mainly by getting to the top rather than the bottom of an unequal economy.) But as a society looked at the twin goals of maximizing opportunity and rewarding real performance, it made less and less sense to enable a system that gives such an edge to those who start out with advantages.
This is a point many people recognize in principle, though it is hard to implement in practice. It’s a reason Deb and I have given such emphasis to community colleges over the years, for instance here (about Kansas and Michigan) and here (about Ohio). Community colleges matter because they are the part of the U.S. educational system most committed to matching people who need opportunities with the opportunities this era has opened up.
The high-tech industry is not often seen as a vehicle of rapid class mobility within the United States. For people from around the world, yes! Less so for people without financial or educational advantages inside the U.S.
In the past few years, Deb and I have often referred to initiatives by Grow With Google, a non-profit arm of Google started in 2017 and devoted to applying advanced tech tools to job-search, civic resilience, and local-startup ends. (For the record: Grow With Google was an underwriter for some of our travel and reporting last year. Deb and I had known, liked, and collaborated with members of this organization in the time well before their business relationship with the Atlantic—and have stayed in touch with them thereafter.)
This past week Grow With Google announced a new program to offer transferrable certificates, in a variety of tech-related fields. The crucial aspect here is the standardization and nationwide (or international) transferability of these credentials. The training may be under Google’s auspices, but the goal is a credential that people can use to show their proficiency when applying for jobs elsewhere.
“Everyone says ‘Bachelor’s degree or equivalent’ in job listings,” Lisa Gevelber, VP of Global Marketing and a leading figure in Grow With Google, told me last week. “But there was no standard definition of what that ‘equivalent’ is.” Five years ago I wrote about an effort in San Bernardino, California, to provide a standardized, transferrable credential in machine-tool and similar skills. Grow With Google is trying to do that on a much broader scale, in an array of skills that have much faster-than-average growth in job availability, and much higher-than-average wages. In addition to tech-related fields like IT support, the certificates cover project-management and data-analytics skills that can be applied in a range of industries.
“A college degree is just out of reach for lots of folks, but a great job doesn’t have to be,” Gevelber told me. “People want to get started, but they don’t know what would be a specific, realistic pathway.” The new certification program, operated in partnership with 100 community colleges around the country (and eventually with “career technical” programs at many high schools), intends to offer the same kind of specific “here’s the next step” certification that people intending to be lawyers have with the LSAT and law degrees, or that aspiring pilots have with FAA certifications. The program also offers its students extensive free “soft skill” training—practice in writing resumes, preparing for job interviews, and generally filling in the background that people from more advantaged backgrounds would already have. Students in these programs pay $49 per month to Coursera, which hosts them. Lisa Gevelber said that students typically finish in three to six months, at a total cost of $150 to $300—and that Google is funding 100,000 scholarships, in addition to other reduced-cost options.
Standardized degrees for professional-class America—the BA, the PhD, the law and medical and related credentials—have been indispensable tools of mobility and opportunity for many people. Standardized and portable credentials for the rest of America are also important, which is why I think this initiative deserves notice.
The main theme of my pandemic article was that people have thought hard about “gray rhino” challenges—problems that, unlike “black swans,” are foreseeable and inevitable, but whose timing is unknown. In earlier administrations, they had come up with plans that could have saved us incalculable suffering, cost, and woe.
Something similar is true of these civic and economic plans. People have thought about this! We should listen to them.
* Let me make an additional news-sensitive point about the Supreme Court reform proposal, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
There was a time when selecting nominees as Justices was not a tontine-style longevity-guessing contest. In 1965, while still in his mid-50s, Arthur Goldberg stepped down from the Court to become Lyndon Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations. For Goldberg it turned out to be a very poor career choice, but it illustrated an era when Justices didn’t think they had to hold onto a seat as long as they breathed. Similarly, David Souter stepped down in 2009, before he turned age 70. And he is still going strong.
Now nominees are sought as young as possible, to hang on as long as plausible—adding a random hand-of-fate factor to what is supposed to be democratic governance. Fixed 18-year-terms, with each president expecting a nomination every two years, would reduce the gruesome medical-report aspect of today’s jurisprudence.
Here is the news angle: If a Supreme Court vacancy should occur between now and next January 20, Mitch McConnell has said that he might attempt to ram through a new appointment and confirmation in that time, even after stonewalling Merrick Garland’s nomination during Barack Obama’s final year. If this happens, and he does so, under current rules the Democrats would not be able to stop him. But they should make their planned response clear: Do this, and when we’re next in control, we’ll expand the size of the Court and confirm several new appointees—which might not have been justified when FDR attempted it, but would be now. More on this as news dictates.
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 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, TheFinancial Timespublished 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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 TheWashington 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.
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 Postquoted 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.
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.)
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.
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.
What it does: FUSE is a nonprofit organization, with offices in San Francisco and Boston, that applies what I think of as an improved version of the familiar Peace Corps or Teach for America models. (By the way, FUSE isn’t an acronym; it’s their preferred capitalization, for the concept that their programs would fuse together contributions from diverse realms.)
The familiar-sounding part of the FUSE approach is placing people who want to serve in locations that need a particular kind of help. Among the differences is FUSE’s emphasis on choosing “executive fellows” who, in additional to idealism and willingness to serve, have long-established, specific experience relevant to the projects to which they will be assigned. To spell this out: Teach for America takes fresh college graduates and gives them crash-course training in classroom techniques. FUSE takes experienced, usually mid-career professionals and matches them with local-government projects that call on their skills.
FUSE was founded nine years ago, by a group that included entrepreneurs and tech-world figures; officials from existing NGOs and civic-service organizations; and veterans of the Obama Administration’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. One of its founders, the entrepreneur and author Peter Sims (who was also one of the forces behind the “global generosity” movement Giving Tuesday), wrote a blog post announcing the ambitions for FUSE. He said it aimed to be
an innovative social venture that will pair some of America’s top entrepreneurial leaders with governors, mayors and community leaders across America to drive meaningful social change. We identify concrete projects in local communities that address a national priority (such as education, economic development or health care). We then recruit and deploy highly-skilled and passionate professionals to help develop and implement innovative and lasting solutions.
You can also see a TechCrunch story from 2011 about FUSE’s launch, here. Since the first group of FUSE Executive Fellows was selected and assigned in 2012, more than 155 of them have worked on projects in more than 30 cities and counties around the country. The local organizations pay FUSE a flat $150,000 fee for each project. That money may come from a combination of city and county budgets, local philanthropies or businesses, or other sources. From that fee FUSE recruits, selects, and trains a fellow; convenes meetings of fellows and covers its other costs; and pays the fellow an annual stipend. According to James Weinberg, CEO of FUSE, fellows generally take a significant pay cut from their previous roles to pursue this opportunity for service.
The two proof-of-concept statistics the organization highlights are, first, that 90 percent of the communities that have signed up for one project, return to sign up for another; and, second, that 50 percent of the people who serve as fellows end up working in “civic leadership” roles after their fellowship is done.
What are these projects? You can find an extensive listing at the FUSE site. James Weinberg went through several examples for me. In New Orleans, a FUSE fellow happened to arrive just as torrential downpours were causing widespread flooding across the city. She worked with the local sewer and water board, which over the next year made extensive improvements—in pumps, drains, data systems, and maintenance. “A year later, at the end of her fellowship, there happened to be a storm with identical rainfall,” Weinberg told me. “This time there was no flooding at all.”
In San Francisco, fellows have worked on police-civic relations in the wake of a Justice Department consent decree; on financing seawall improvements, to cope with rising oceans; on homelessness; and on the city’s other crises. Elsewhere around the country they have worked on health-care systems, on traffic problems, on urban revitalization, on educational inequities, on addiction, on racial-justice matters, and on similar deep problems that mayors must actually cope with, rather than just giving speeches about.
Why people serve: Through the late 1970s, the parents of my wife, Deb Fallows, had their own small sales business in the industrial Midwest. Because of a premature health scare, they decided to sell the business while in their early 50s—and after a brief time of travel began what they described as the most satisfying period of their lives. Under the auspices of the International Executive Service Corps, a sort of Peace Corps for retired business people, they spent much of the next two decades based in South Korea, then Indonesia, Egypt, and Kenya, advising businesses there. They received only a small fraction of their previous income but felt happy and engaged.
When James Weinberg described his FUSE corps members, I recognized what I had seen in my parents-in-law. The people who applied for fellowships, he said, were often 20 or more years into their career, in their 40s or 50s. “They may have been thinking for quite a while about a shift, into some kind of service,” he said. “They didn’t know what form it could take, or how they really could be useful.” One of the purposes of FUSE, he said, was to give a specific answer and outlet to an individual’s general desire to do something different, something more “meaningful” in life.
Fellows can re-up for a second year of service, and about half do. Weinberg said that—as with other service projects—during the year there was a foreseeable arc of emotions. “By the six-month mark, there’s usually a dip in energy and faith that ‘Anything is possible,’ because the work is so much harder than they thought—often facing some of the biggest challenges of their careers,” he told me. The “cohort model” of the program, in which fellows on different projects got together periodically to compare experiences, was valuable in creating a sense of going through the struggles together.
“When they end their fellowship, they’re acutely conscious of the gaps that still remain,” Weinberg said. “Then they look back later and say, ‘We did that! What more can we do now?’”
What has happened now: The problem for FUSE is the problem for nearly all of America’s city and state governments: The need for services is going up, while the money to pay for those services is going down. That’s an emergency for next week, and next month and next year.
The emergency for today is shifting resources to help cities deal with their crises in health care, homelessness, food bank, small-business survival, domestic violence, and other areas. Weinberg gave these examples in an email:
FUSE Fellows are restructuring hospitals to prepare for an influx of critical patients; ensuring food delivery to the elderly who have been ordered to stay inside; providing temporary housing to clear densely populated homeless encampments; reaching out to immigrant communities about their rights to access the public health system; transforming educational systems to online learning while schools are closed; supporting the justice-related needs of those trapped in legal systems that have ground to a halt; helping prop-up small businesses and low-income communities; and much more…. This is all part of an emerging FUSE Covid Response Strategy.
Like many other organizations, FUSE is now working on medium- and longer-term plans, to help cities with their economic and civic reconstruction, whenever the current devastation has passed.
Why do I mention all this? Not to endorse every specific project, since I haven’t seen them myself. I’m not seeing anything but my own household these days. Rather it is to illustrate the creativity and energy with which much of civic-level America in responding to a medical and economic emergency unprecedented in our lifetimes. Next up: What NationSwell is doing to the same end.
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.
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.
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?
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.]
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.
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.
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.
In a similar vein, a reader on the West Coast writes about the long-term effects of today’s elected GOP officials condoning Trump’s behavior:
I agree with your approach of keeping a record of what we know now about Trump, partly as a way to rebut future claims of ignorance. I wonder if you also considered the following variation on this approach—namely, framing Trump’s most egregious behaviors, characteristics, and episodes, and the GOP and conservative media responses to them—as things that would NOT warrant the end of a future presidency.
For example, extrapolating from the GOP and conservative media response to Trump, a future presidency should NOT be in serious jeopardy if the president fails to a) reveal their tax forms, b) divest their business or put their assets into a blind trust, and c) explicitly uses their office for personal profit.
Moreover, the following behaviors from a future president or presidential candidate are not only not disqualifying, but they would also not warrant a serious FBI investigation: a) publicly or privately asking a foreign power to intervene in an election, b) lying about contacts with such a foreign power during a campaign, c) discussing or coordinating campaign tactics … you get the idea.
By turning a blind eye to Trump’s bad behavior, the GOP and Trump's conservative supporters are implicitly establishing the criteria for ending a presidency; and what they’ve been saying, in so many words, is that Trump’s behavior and overall fitness do not warrant the end of a presidency.
In my view, the points above should be explicit. Americans should know the GOP’s stance on this, and we should have a national discussion about what warrants the end of a presidency...
On Friday, April 17—yesterday, as I write—Donald Trump sent outthreetweets 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?
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.
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 TheNew York Times and TheGuardian, many of the protests were planned and financed by partisan conservative organizations.
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:
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.
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.
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.
At his rally-briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Trump announced that he was cutting off U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, WHO. This was allegedly because WHO had not been “transparent” in the early stages of the coronavirus’s spread.
Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the renowned medical journal The Lancet, responded that Trump’s move, in the middle of a pandemic, was “a crime against humanity.” Such a judgment is usually reserved for leaders in the middle of massacres or wars.
On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal and other sources reported that federal pandemic-relief checks will soon go out with Donald Trump’s name on them. All politicians want to claim credit for their good works. (Thus the names of mayors, governors, city council members, et al. on plaques at bridges or town halls.) No previous president had tried a stunt like this. In fact, Trump isn’t authorized to sign the checks, so his name will have to go on the memo lines. And, as Lisa Rein reported in the Washington Post, Trump’s insistence on adding his name will delay the checks by several days.
At the Monday session, Trump unveiled videos praising his management of the pandemic. These were widely described in the press as “propaganda.” For instance, the headline on the Washington Post piece was “Trump’s propaganda-laden, off-the-rails coronavirus briefing.” The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins called them “Orwellian.” Under questioning, Trump gladly disclosed that the videos had been produced by the White House staff.
Even if the videos had been scrupulously factual and meant only to boost Trump’s reelection campaign, they would have been a problem for previous administrations. In principle, presidents (like senators and representatives) are supposed to observe a church-and-state separation between “official” staff, who work for the public, and “campaign staff,” who work for the re-election. For instance, White House staffers aren’t supposed to work on or appear in campaign ads. Obviously that line has always been blurry. But previous administrations at least pretended to comply.
At the Monday session, Paula Reid of CBS News was pointed and persistent in her questions about the misstatements in the videos. Trump exploded at Reid, yelling that she was “disgusting” and “a fake.”
Such naked hostility is pre-discounted as almost the norm for Trump, especially in response to female reporters or other public figures. As a reminder of how far this crudeness departs from the historic norm: Back in the fall of 1973, when Richard Nixon was at war with the press after the “Saturday Night Massacre,” he delivered what was seen at the time as an amazingly insulting rebuke.
“Don’t get the impression that you rouse my anger,” Nixon said to assembled reporters, after listing complaints about coverage he considered unfair. Nixon gave a tight smile (as you can see here), and waited for a reporter to take the bait. Robert Pierpoint, then White House correspondent for CBS, finally said in an obviously joking tone, “Well, we have that impression.” Nixon responded with the line he had been saving up: Of course he wasn’t “angry,” Nixon explained. “You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.” There was brief silence and then an ooohhh sound from the room. Before Trump, this was as far as a president would allow himself to go in public.
There is so much unprecedented behavior, nonstop. The people now enabling Trump will someday claim that no one really knew what was happening at the time. But they know. Part of the point of this chronicle, like its 2016 predecessor, is to set out a record of what is known, while it’s going on.
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, whoworked 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.
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.
For the record, here are several events of the past few days, any one of which would have been week-defining news in previous eras:
Donald Trump personally fired two inspectors-general. One was Michael Atkinson, whom Trump made clear he was punishing for bringing attention to his Ukraine call. The other was Glenn Fine, set to oversee disbursement of coronavirus relief funds. Inspectors general have been part of the federal landscape for many decades. For a president to fire one, let alone two, is rare enough that at the moment I can’t recall any other examples. As Benjamin Wittes asked on the Lawfare site, “Why Is Trump’s Inspector General Purge Not a National Scandal?”
Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy who dismissed Captain Brett Crozier, of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, offered a resignation-under-pressure, after he gratuitously attacked Crozier as “too naive or too stupid” during a speech in front of members of Crozier’s crew. Along with hundreds of his crew members, Crozier himself has tested positive for the virus.
Donald Trump’s marathon daily “briefings” on the virus situation, which I argued ten days ago were becoming substitutes for campaign rallies, have become so unhinged that even his loyalists on the Wall Street Journal editorial page today called for their cessation, because they were hurting Trump. For instance:
On Tuesday Mr. Trump was asked, in a typically tendentious question, why he had compared the coronavirus to the flu. Instead of saying he had been hoping for the best but was wrong when he'd said that, he got into a fight over the severity of the flu. This sort of exchange usually devolves into a useless squabble that helps Mr. Trump’s critics and contributes little to public understanding.
The President’s outbursts against his political critics are also notably off key at this moment. This isn’t impeachment, and Covid-19 isn’t shifty Schiff. It’s a once-a-century threat to American life and livelihood.
From the stalwarts on the WSJ editorial page, this is almost as notable as a brushback from Fox & Friends.
As I write, the total of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States is approaching half a million, and the death toll is approaching 15,000. As of three weeks ago, the greatest-ever number of new weekly claims for unemployment was around 250,000. Two weeks ago, more than 3 million Americans filed. One week ago, another 6 million-plus did. Today, yet another 6 million.
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 Beltand 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.
The former president’s 2015 backers, in their own words
Now that Donald Trump’s presidency is over, how do the Americans who supported him at the beginning of his political run feel about his performance in the Oval Office? I put that question to 30 men and women who wrote to me in August 2015 to explain their reasons for backing his insurgent candidacy.
Among the eight who replied, all in the second week of January, after the storming of the Capitol, some persist in supporting Trump; others have turned against him; still others have lost faith in the whole political system. They do not constitute a representative sample of Trump voters. But their views, rendered in their own words, offer more texture than polls that tell us an approval rating.
Donald Trump did not merely lie to exaggerate his accomplishments, or smear his opponents. For Trump and the Republican Party, lies were a loyalty test. To reject Trump’s lies or exaggerations, even if they contradicted prior assertions by the now-ex-president, was to express disloyalty, the only Trump-era sin that was unforgivable by his faithful. This allowed the president to fashion for his supporters alternate realities whose tenets could not be questioned, such as his false allegations of voter fraud.
Britain’s COVID-19 death toll has risen above 100,000. But, if it is successful, the country’s vaccine drive may leave a more lasting memory.
Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET on January 26, 2021.
Britain has passed the grimmest of milestones: 100,000 people dead from COVID-19. This appalling tally is higher than anywhere else in Europe, and almost twice that of Germany, the biggest country on the continent. By one measure, Britain is now the worst-hit G-7 nation relative to its size.
There is simply no escaping the reality that the country has suffered a catastrophic failure of governance. On March 17, six days before Boris Johnson ordered Britain’s first full national lockdown, his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, told members of Parliament that, based on modeling provided to the government, a “good” outcome over the course of the pandemic would be if deaths were kept below 20,000.
After growing up in a family that never lied, I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful.
When I was a child, my dad invented a game that I loved. Wherever we went, he’d predict what strangers were about to say or do. We’d walk into a store and he’d point at the salesman and say something like, “Watch this. When I tell him how much I’m willing to spend, he’ll immediately show me something more expensive.” The salesman did exactly as Dad had prophesized. When Dad took me to my first concert, he told me the musician would ask the audience how they were feeling tonight and, when everyone cheered wildly, would respond, “I can’t hear you!” It wasn’t long before the musician spoke those exact words.
It felt like magic, like Dad was telling the future or reading minds, so I asked how he did it. Most people follow a script, he said. I asked him why and I remember him replying, “Because they’re afraid that if they say what they really feel, people won’t like them. And they’d rather be liked than be honest.” I knew then that I wanted to be honest, regardless of the consequences. I stuck to that for the next 25 years. And there were consequences.
President Biden is inheriting one of Trump’s pet projects.
The headquarters of the United States Space Command was supposed to be based in Colorado. Since then-President Donald Trump revived the command in 2018, the state had been its temporary home, and last February, when the search for a permanent location was still on, he had teased that the current arrangement could win out. “I will be making a big decision on the future of the Space Force as to where it is going to be located, and I know you want it,” Trump said at a rally in Colorado Springs last February. “You are being very strongly considered for the space command, very strongly.”
The Space Command is not the same thing as the Space Force, which was created in 2019 (and which, by the way, is not the same thing as NASA, either). The Space Force trains service members, some of whom serve under Space Command. But in Trump’s mind, they are wrapped up together, as one of his signature accomplishments. Space is cool and flashy, and who doesn’t love Mars? When Trump mentioned the Space Force at a rally, the crowd erupted in cheers. A new Space Command headquarters would, in theory, help cement part of his legacy—Trump, the president who made space great again.
And the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases has dropped significantly too.
Today marks two weeks of declining COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S., 14 straight days without a blip upward, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Case numbers, too, are declining, and today the seven-day case average is down a third since its peak, on January 12.
That day, the count of current hospitalizations was 131,326; it’s now down to 108,957. It’s the first significant decline since September 21, when the climb down from the summer surge stopped just under 29,000. As the country passes the milestone of 25 million cases, it’s a stable indicator pointing in the right direction.
During the winter surge, hospitalization numbers bumped over a number of small, false summits, in which hospitalizations declined for a day or two before continuing their rise. They also rose for a couple of days after coming down from January 6’s absolute peak of 132,474.
In the aftermath of the January 6 riot, extremists have become obsessed with the federal agents who might lurk among them.
Updated at 9:15 a.m. E.T. on January 25, 2021
Judging by the actions of those who stormed the Capitol, far-right extremists don’t fear arrest. But they do fear one thing: glowies.
During the Trump administration, many far-right groups’ main concern was figuring out how to recruit more people to the cause. But as federal law-enforcement officials continue to round up people suspected of involvement in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and Joe Biden’s administration promises a crackdown on white-supremacist and anti-government radicals, extremists are on the verge of a crack-up, posting widely and worriedly about spies in their midst—“glowies.” That’s the term far-right groups use to describe people they suspect of being federal law-enforcement agents or informants infiltrating their communication channels, trying to catch them plotting violence, or prodding them into illegal acts.
A devastating incident in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s battles.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations relied heavily on highly trained Special Forces units to keep Afghanistan from collapse. The strategy has kept recent episodes of the 21-year Afghan War out of the public eye, but it is failing to stabilize the country and is straining the United States military’s elite troops, who serve back-to-back combat tours without an end in sight and disproportionately give their lives in service of a war the public knows almost nothing about.
When Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in 2015, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched on a secret mission to help Afghan commandos recapture it. Under-resourced and unprepared, the soldiers found themselves in the midst of a pitched battle with conflicting orders. The story of how it led to one of the U.S. military’s worst disasters in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s wars.
Quarantine is turning you into a stiff, hunched-over, itchy, sore, headachy husk.
The first time my hips locked up, the reason was at least a little bit glamorous. It was 2018, and I was returning from vacation in Sicily, which was the fanciest thing I’d ever done by several orders of magnitude. As I went through the motions—and, perhaps more important, the lack of motion—of international flight, my gait began to stiffen, and my stride contracted to a fraction of its former self. My body, settling into its mid-30s, rebelled against the hours spent in airplane seats, the nights in unfamiliar beds, the constant, awkward physicality of travel.
The same thing happened a few more times over the next year and a half, always after long-haul flights. I began to think of it as “airplane hip,” and the condition was annoying but temporary; I don’t spend much time on planes, and a yoga move called “pigeon pose” would stretch my stiff waddle back into a walk in a day or two. Usually, the discomfort was worth it—a small musculoskeletal price to pay for the occasional privilege of seeing parts of the world still new to me.
Election changes such as ranked-choice voting and nonpartisan primaries are popping up across the country—and are already upending national politics.
Lisa Murkowski did not waste time, and she did not mince words. Just two days after former President Donald Trump provoked an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol on January 6, Alaska’s senior senator told her local newspaper: “I want him to resign. I want him out.”
Murkowski was the first GOP senator to demand Trump’s exit after the deadly riot. The speed and bluntness with which she spoke out against the former president surprised her allies, who saw in her words the first reverberations of how Alaska voted in November. Murkowski wasn’t on the 2020 ballot, but in passing a ballot measure to change the way the state elects its leaders, Alaskans effectively gave their long-serving senator a fresh infusion of political freedom: She no longer needs to worry nearly so much about a conservative primary foe defeating her next year. “I think we’ve seen the result of it already,” former Alaska Governor Bill Walker told me.