People will look back on this era in our history to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the evidence available to voters as they make their choice, and of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates. (For a Fallows-led, ongoing reader discussion on Trump’s rise to the presidency, see “Trump Nation.”)
As with a previous “Crickets” installment, #13, this one notes something we have not heard, and whose absence is remarkable in the history of presidential campaigning.
Today the Democratic nominee for president said this about the Republican party’s chosen nominee:
From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia. He’s taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over one of America’s two major political parties….
He promoted the racist lie that President Obama isn’t really an American citizen – part of a sustained effort to delegitimize America’s first black President.
In 2015, Trump launched his own campaign for President with another racist lie. He described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals….
Since then, there’s been a steady stream of bigotry.
And she went on, in detail. It amounted to as blunt a criticism as one nominee has made about another since … well, I can’t remember a comparable case.
And here is a list of the first ten senior Republican party officials who sprang to their nominee’s defense. These were the senators, governors, cabinet secretaries, former candidates who rushed to say that of course he’s not a bigot, of course he’s not playing on prejudice, of course he’s not legitimizing racism:
You could say that Hillary Clinton veered away from the real truth in presenting Trump as something alien to the modern Republican party, rather than a conclusion it has been building toward. President Obama, not on the ballot himself any more, could afford to be more direct when he asked: “What does it say about your party that this is your standard-bearer?”
You could say that the Republican “leaders” are trying to have it both ways, officially “supporting” Trump but looking the other way when Hillary Clinton, accurately, points out what he stands for. Neither changes the fact that the party’s nominee is called “dangerous,” “unfit,” “reckless,” and now a trafficker in racism, and no one in party leadership steps up to say: Not true!
I am trying to confine myself strictly to things that really haven’t happened before, and … whew.
The sample ballots recently sent out by the Minnesota Secretary of State included, as presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton of the Democrats, Gary Johnson of the Libertarians, Jill Stein of the Greens, Dan Vacek of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, and a variety of others. But neither Donald Trump nor any other Republican candidate was listed.
Why? The GOP had apparently missed the deadlines and procedures for getting on the ballot—deadlines that the Legal Marijuana Now Party, to name one, had been able to meet. The story from City Pages is here.
Presumably the Republican party will figure out a last-minute workaround. And anyway, Minnesota has a modest total of 10 electoral votes, which have gone Democratic in every single election for the past 40 years. (The estimable Walter Mondale carried two states when running against Ronald Reagan in 1984: the District of Columbia, and his own home state of Minnesota.) So maybe it wouldn’t make a difference one way or the other.
But once again, I’m not aware of anything like this having happened with a major party before. Managerial excellence is of course central to Donald Trump’s promises of what he would do in office. What he’s managing now is his campaign.
Early this month, a group of 50 national-security officials who had served in Republican administrations—Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II—released a statement opposing Donald Trump and saying that he would be “the most reckless President in American history.”
A few days before that, a former head of the CIA formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, saying that Trump had become “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” That was a day after President Obama declared Trump “unfit” for the presidency, and a former prime minister of Sweden said Trump was “a serious threat to the security of the West.”
Today Ben Leubsdorf, Eric Morath, and Josh Zumbrun of the WSJ published the results of a survey of all living former members of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, with service dating back to the time of Richard Nixon. Not one of them expressed support for Donald Trump. All of the Republicans who expressed a preference opposed him.
The story quoted a post by Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the CEA under George W. Bush:
“I have Republican friends who think that things couldn’t be worse than doubling down on Obama policies under Hillary Clinton. And, like them, I am no fan of the left’s agenda of large government and high taxes,” Mr. Mankiw wrote. “But they are wrong: Things could be worse. And I fear they would be under Mr. Trump.”
I’m not aware of anything like this having happened before. Noted for the record, with 74 days to go until the election, and with no tax returns or plausible health report yet on public offer.
The previous 84 items in this series cover developments that might concern Donald Trump’s opponents. Tonight we have one that might concern his most fervent supporters.
In an interview aired Wednesday evening with his supporter Sean Hannity, Trump showed that he understood the logic behind immigration-reform proposals like that of Marco Rubio’s “Gang of 8.” The starting point for such proposals has been the reality that millions of people are already in the United States without legal permission. Some are ordinary criminals, who if they’re caught are usually jailed or deported. But many others are parents, students, workers, or others who lead regular law-abiding lives except for their illegal immigration status.
What do you do with them? From George W. Bush to Barack Obama to the bipartisan members of the Gang of 8, the answer was: you don’t pretend you’re going to round them up and expel them. It can’t and won’t happen, and shouldn’t. But Donald Trump’s answer since the start of his campaign has been: Yes it can! And will and should! Find these illegals and send them home. That was the basis of his attack on softies like Rubio (who ended up renouncing the Gang of 8) and Jeb Bush. It was the logical complement to his talk about the wall. It has been to his campaign what standing up to the Soviets was to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
But in the interview tonight Trump said, in effect, Never mind! You can read the whole extraordinary transcript of his talk with Hannity in this Twitter post by Sopan Deb of CBS News. Here is a crucial passage:
“It’s a very, very hard thing.” It’s so tough to think of throwing a family out. These are exactly the real-world concerns behind decades’ worth of reform efforts. They’re the same concerns Trump has until now mocked as weak and loser-like. His hard line on deportation is what has attracted his most devoted supporters. One of those, Ann Coulter, had a pro-Trump book published this very day, in which she says: “There is nothing Trump can do that won’t be forgiven. Except change his immigration policies.”
Will his supporters still forgive him? Has his policy changed? Is it a policy at all? We’ll see. One way or another, this is a moment to note.
1) In a speech this evening in Jackson, Mississippi, Trump sounded more the way he had for the past year, and less how he sounded in the Hannity session aired on Fox at about the same time. (It was taped a few days earlier.) For instance, tonight he said, “The media ignores the plight of Americans who have lost their children to illegal immigrants, but spends day after day pushing for amnesty for those here in total violation of the law. We can’t allow that.”
“We can’t allow that,” versus “Who wants those people thrown out?” Same candidate, same night. Remember back when “I voted for it, before I voted against it” was by itself a major campaign gaffe?
2) With ten weeks to go in the campaign, the Republican nominee is spending an evening … in Mississippi! This is a state with a whole 6 electoral votes. A Republican who is worried about carrying Mississippi might as well quit right now and move to Ukraine. Meta point: any day Trump is not spending in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or two or three other swing states is a day lost forever, unless it’s for a fund-raising sortie to California or New York.
3) Trump’s featured ally in Mississippi was … Nigel Farage! A Brit, the Trump of England, who rabble-roused for the Brexit vote and then resigned his party’s leadership after it passed. Perhaps there’s a comparable case, but I’m not aware of it: a nominee stumping in a small non-swing state, alongside a controversial foreigner whom very few in the crowd would recognize. Not that anything’s wrong with it. But the strategic choice is … notable.
Also notable: from the same platform tonight, in Mississippi, reading from prepared text on his teleprompter, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton is a bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.” You can do your own glosses on this. (“The judge, we believe, is Mexican,” etc. That was way back in Time Capsule #7!) I’m just noting for the record that this is the day it occurred.
The video below is not by Donald Trump or from the Trump campaign. That’s why I put an asterisk in the title line. To be clear, he has no known official involvement with it whatsoever.
But in a chronicle of what America is like, 75 days before the electorate decides whether Trump will be president, this is worth noting as an artifact. In previous campaigns—Obama-Romney, all the way back to, say, Carter-Reagan—I’m not aware of anything this blunt coming as close to “mainstream” respectability as the “alt-right” has done in informal alliance with the Trump campaign.
Some readers have complained or wondered about the title of yesterday’s installment #83, “Rent Is Too Damn High.” I guess I should have spelled out that it was an allusion to a colorful figure named Jimmy McMillan, who ran for mayor of New York in the Bloomberg era on a platform of “The Rent Is Too Damn High.” It wasn’t that long ago, but evidently some people didn’t know about it.
In the same err-on-the-side-of-clarity spirit, let me point out that this new video is meant as a take-off of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which after all came out nearly 30 years ago and is about the milestones of his (and my) much-deplored Baby Boomer generation.
Bonus surprise explanation: a main figure in the new video and in the movement behind it is a man named Jared Taylor. You see him briefly, with a red necktie, at time 0:40 of the video and again at time 1:00. I am pretty sure it is him in the shades, straw hat, and blue Hawaiian shirt that you see in the static shot above and playing the saxophone from time 3:00 onward.
Jared Taylor and I were good friends in the 1980s and 1990s, based on shared interest in Japan. He grew up there as the child of missionaries; went to Japanese public school and had native-speaker command of the language; and wrote an outstanding book about the strengths and weaknesses of Japan called Shadows of the Rising Sun.
We stayed in touch in the U.S. in the 1990s and I still think of him in friendly terms. But our views have diverged.
Taylor has become an organizational and intellectual leader of the “American Renaissance” movement, progenitor of what is now called the alt-right. The Washington Post’s David Weigel, from whom I learned about the video, wrote about Taylor and his movement last week. That will give you background on the ideas and people behind a video like this.
I am pivoting toward a sanity-protecting, time-preserving policy of simply noting “norm-changing” activities from the Trump campaign. That is, words or actions for which there is no known precedent from other nominees. Two from today:
1) S.V. Date’s story in Huffington Post on how the Trump campaign raised the rent (for space in Trump’s own buildings) once donors started picking up the tab. Sample:
Trump nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign, according to a Huffington Post review of Federal Election Commission filings. The rent jumped even though he was paying fewer staff in July than he did in March.
When “profiteering” or “self-dealing” complaints have arisen in past campaigns, they’ve usually involved consultants or pollsters who might, say, coordinate big TV-ad buys and then take a commission on all the purchases. I’m not aware of any that have involved the candidate’s own businesses before.
2) Roger Stone, one of Trump’s most ferocious advocates, says that Trump should release his tax returns “immediately.” The norm-changing aspect here is Trump’s ongoing refusal to release his tax information, an obligation that even Stone recognizes. Fred Goldberg, who served as commissioner of the IRS under the first President Bush, writes to underscore the fatuousness of Trump’s “they’re under audit” excuse for not releasing his returns.
Reminder: The original idea behind this Time Capsule series was to record, in real time, what the American public knows and learns about Donald Trump while it is deciding whether he should become president. Mainly I’ve tried to stick with norm-changing events, those for which there is no obvious precedent. Here are four recent items that, to the best of my knowledge, differ from what we’ve ever seen from major-party nominees or their campaigns.
1) “Hillary Clinton is sick.” In stump speeches Donald Trump has been saying that Hillary Clinton looks bad and has to sleep a lot. His campaign representatives Rudy Giuliani and Katrina Pierson have been much more direct, implying that Clinton either has a serious disease or is suffering cognitive damage. You can read about it in David Graham’s new item here, and also here, here, here, and here. On CNN, Amy Kremer of Women Vote Trump likened the aftereffects of Clinton’s concussion several years ago to traumatic brain damage for NFL players.
On the merits of such claims, Clinton’s doctor, Lisa Bardack, has released a statement denying these reports and affirming her “excellent health.” (As a reminder, the only health information Trump has released is the Onion-style report from last year, which states “unequivocally he will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”)
As for the norms of campaigning: Health questions obviously have a long history in presidential politics. Franklin Roosevelt was gravely ill when he ran for a fourth term in 1944 but did his best to conceal that—as he had (with press connivance) minimized awareness of his paralysis throughout his time as president. There were whispering campaigns about Ronald Reagan’s age and mental condition when he ran for re-election in 1984, about John Kennedy’s ailments including Addison’s disease in 1960, and of course about Thomas Eagleton’s history of mental illness, which drove him from the Democratic ticket in 1972. But I’m not aware of a previous case in which senior campaign representatives came right out with public suggestions of ill health, as Trump’s are doing now.
2. Deportation? Maybe not. Reports over the weekend suggest that Trump might be reconsidering his promise to find people without legal immigration papers and send them back home.
“Adaptability” has always been part of politics. FDR ran as a fiscal conservative in 1932 but then launched the New Deal. Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 as the president who “kept us out of war” and then took us into war. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, both previously in favor of the TPP trade deal, now are both against it—the same is of course true of Hillary Clinton. There are examples from almost every president or nominee.
But again I’m not aware of another case of a nominee suggesting a change on so fundamental a premise of his campaign. It is as if Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, had indicated that he was open-minded about secession, or like George McGovern in 1972 saying that maybe the Vietnam War wasn’t so bad. (And to spell this out: Lincoln and McGovern were right in the views they had and stuck with. Trump’s deportation plan, in my view, is wrong, but it’s been the heart of his campaign.)
3. A new season of The Apprentice? A report by Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair indicates that Trump talked with NBC officials, before he ran, about possibly hosting new seasons of the show from the White House. Obviously nothing like this has occurred before. Closest imaginable counterpart: if Ronald Reagan, after becoming president, had revived General Electric Theater, a TV series that he hosted in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Every president ends up resenting the press. While in office Harry Truman got so mad about a hostile Washington Post review of his daughter’s piano concert that he sent a personal letter to the reviewer, Paul Hume, threatening to beat him up. (The letter is here, and it is amazing. For instance: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”) But the Truman episode is famous because it’s so unusual.
The main other illustration: During the 2000 campaign, then-nominee George W. Bush stood at a podium with running mate Dick Cheney and, not realizing the microphone was on, referred to a certain New York Times reporter as “a major league asshole.” Cheney replied, “Yeah, big time.” This is like what Trump keeps doing with his tweets, except that Bush and Cheney didn’t think they were doing it in public, whereas Trump is deliberately sending the message to millions of followers.
It’s now 77 days until the election: no tax returns or plausible health report forthcoming; official GOP leadership still standing firm with the nominee.
Donald Trump’s comments last night in Dimondale, Michigan, have already received a lot of attention. They’re worth noting as part of his campaign’s evolution, and worth watching in the video below, for these reasons:
They come after, not before, the latest “pivot” to a more compassionate, more general-election-minded tone in the campaign. This is the nice Trump.
They resemble appeals with a long and sometimes honorable history. Some black conservatives, and more whites, have argued over the decades that the taken-for-granted status of black support for Democratic candidates leaves the African-American vote, well, taken for granted. The most heartfelt and appealing version of the argument that black voters should consider voting Republican came from the late Jack Kemp, due to his sunny bearing and his own bona fides from a career in the integrated world of sports. It was different from the version Trump presented here.
Trump ostensibly made his argument to black voters, asking “what do you have to lose?” But if you watch the clip you’ll see that in context he is talking about black people, to an audience that was mainly white. (Audience composition is something you can largely control if you’re running a national campaign. Where you hold the event, where you drum up attendance, whom you seat in the prominent on-camera places behind the candidate and in the front of the crowd—these all have an effect and can be tuned.)
Most remarkable was a tone that amounted to treating black America as a problem, rather than as a group that has some problems. The tension between statement and insinuation was similar to Trump’s inaugural statement last year about Mexicans: “they’re sending rapists.” He wasn’t explicitly saying, “Mexicans are rapists.” But the tone and insinuation were those you would never use about a group you cared about, or respected. Also, the repeated you when talking to or about black Americans was not matched by a we, emphasizing that blacks, Mexicans, etc were all part of our America.
Listen to the passage starting at time 1:05 of the clip below. To me the unavoidable tone is the same: What is wrong with “you people”?
Trump rounds out this appeal by saying that if he’s elected, he’ll get 95% black support for his re-election. “I guarantee it!” This will probably end up being classified in the “sarcastic” bin, given that not even Barack Obama got that large a share of the black vote in his re-election run. He got about 93% in 2012; Trump right now is running between 1% and 3% black support, depending on the polls.
Update Trump has said similar things, more clearly, on Fox News. It’s worth reading the report on Think Progress. “Total catastrophe” is one of the terms he uses to describe the achievements and situation of black Americans.
When I saw this news last night, I thought: can I stand to add this to the log? The photo below is part of the reason I’ve gone ahead and done so.
Incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is running hard for re-election this year, in a state where Donald Trump is now running far behind Hillary Clinton. I saw his campaign bus yesterday evening in Erie and talked with a staffer who was standing by the bus.
“You from Pennsylvania?” he asked — ie, are you a potential voter worth my spending time with?
“Originally!” I said, accurately if misleadingly. I was born in Philadelphia, where my parents grew up, before the Navy moved our family to California. Then I asked, “How does the Senator stand on Trump?”
“He’s still waiting to see,” the staffer said. (It turns out that “waiting” is the official Toomey stance on this issue.)
“I wonder what more he needs to see,” I volunteered, as the staffer began to realize I wasn’t a likely prospect, and the caravan moved on.
That’s why it’s worth adding to the chronicle. “Responsible” Republicans like Senator Toomey are still considering Donald Trump potentially acceptable, as he continues to say and do the things he says and does.
There it stands, with 79 days until the election, and no tax returns or plausible medical report on offer from the Trump campaign.
No larger point for now (still on the road, out all days on interviews in Erie), but here we note for the record the second major change in Trump campaign leadership within roughly two months.
In June, Corey Lewandowski was out, soon to join CNN, and Paul Manafort was in. Today, Manafort is out, and Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are in.
To say something you might have seen before in this space: This level of churn and chaos very rarely occurs in a major-party presidential campaign. To the best of my knowledge, it has never occurred in a winning campaign.
Now perhaps we’ll never know who was telling the truth about the change in the GOP platform, made at the convention, that favored Russia and Manafort’s pro-Russian former client, Viktor Yanukovych (as noted here two weeks ago). Members of the platform committee say that the Manafort-led Trump campaign asked for this change, and only this change, in the party’s platform. Manafort flatly and categorically denied that Team Trump had anything whatsoever to do with the change. “It absolutely did not come from the campaign,” he told George Stephanopoulos. “No one, zero” from the campaign was involved.
The members of the platform committee had no reason to misrepresent what happened. Manafort did, and had a long record of Baghdad Bob-like flat denials of reality when speaking for the campaign. Thus I’ve assumed that he was the one dissembling. But presumably the press spotlight will for now move away from him and resolving this issue. Legal proceedings could be another matter.
Eighty days to go until the election; still no tax returns or plausible medical report on offer from the Trump campaign; but it’s a new team with a new start. On to new reports tomorrow.
I’ve innocently spent a few days offline, in the same city (Erie, Pa.) where Donald Trump spoke this weekend but seeing a completely different prospect from the one he described. And I log back to on to see—whoa!
In order, and for the record:
Medical records. While Trump’s refusal to release his tax records has gotten more attention, his failure to provide a plausible medical report is in a way more shocking (as I’ve noted over the months).
The only report he has put out is a preposterous North Korean News Service-style farce last year, from a doctor who certified him as “unequivocally the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Also, the very oldest. Ronald Reagan was not quite 70 when he began his first term. Donald Trump would be 70 ½.
Meanwhile, tax returns. This past weekend in the NYT, Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina wrote an op-ed called “I Support You, Donald Trump. Now, Release Your Tax Returns.” Sanford, a former governor, is no one’s idea of a liberal. He makes a powerful case, from a stance of supporting Trump, that Trump should respect the expectation of all nominees since Richard Nixon and release his taxes. Sample:
I ran twice for governor of South Carolina, and I released my tax returns both times. To be frank, it felt a bit like a colonoscopy: I didn’t like it, but it was our tradition in South Carolina. The power of staying true to the precedent that had been set prevailed. If presidential candidates won’t release their tax returns, you can expect the same in the states. If a presidential nominee doesn’t do it, why should a candidate for governor?
Paul Manafort, we hardly knew ye. On the day that Manafort gets competition for his leadership of the Trump campaign, yet another story about the complications of his involvement in Ukraine. Sample, from the AP:
Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party's efforts to influence U.S. policy.
The revelation, provided to The Associated Press by people directly knowledgeable about the effort, comes at a time when Trump has faced criticism for his friendly overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It also casts new light on the business practices of campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
It’s worth noting that Manafort still has not addressed what appears to be an important and very public flat-out lie: his claim that no one from the Trump campaign had anything whatsoever to do with a change in the GOP platform to favor Russia and weaken support for Ukraine.
Team Breitbart. Oh lord. Please read this wonderful story by my former Atlantic colleague Joshua Green, in Bloomberg Businessweek, about the new talent Trump has brought onto his team. A clue comes from the headline: “This Man is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America.” And that was before he took charge of the GOP campaign!
These intel people, what do they know? As he gets his first classified briefing, Donald Trump says he “doesn’t trust” the official U.S. government intel agencies. Good! Maybe they won’t have to give him subsequent briefings.
On the cusp of 81 days until the election, with neither tax returns nor a plausible medical report released, I’ll stop with this for the moment, and get back to the things actually going in a positive direction in the country. Despite the “to infinity” billing in this item’s headline, there are sure to be more installments to come.
This is a breaking-news placeholder, for “what we knew, when” purposes:
One month ago, the Republican platform was altered to soften any commitment to supporting Ukraine in its struggles against Russia (which seized Crimea from Ukraine two years ago). This was the only significant change in the foreign-policy aspects of the platform at the convention.
Two weeks ago, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose former PR clients included Victor Yanukovich, the now-deposed, pro-Russian President of Ukraine, categorically denied that he or anyone from the Trump campaign had anything whatsoever to do with this change.
One week ago, several members of the platform committee began emerging to say: No, that’s not true, the only reason for the change was pressure from the Trump campaign. That is, that Paul Manafort’s categorical denials had to be false. The Trump campaign has not addressed the contradictions.
This evening, the New York Times has a big investigative piece by Andrew Kramer, Mike McIntire, and Barry Meier on Paul Manafort’s involvement in Ukraine. It says, among other things, that secret ledgers “show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.” A delicious note is that Corey Lewandowski, the ousted pre-Manafort Trump campaign manager, tweeted out a link to the NYT story.
What does this add up to? At the moment I don’t know. I will say one more time: nothing quite like this has happened before. And with 84 days until the election, there is all the more reason to expect Donald Trump to do what all other post-Nixon nominees have done, and release his tax returns.
Actually, that’s a pretty good working definition of what freedom of the press is, and by extension freedom of speech as well.
If a statement is “completely false,” and personally damaging and malicious, there is the remedy of libel law. But if a statement is “complete false” in that it runs against your own beliefs or evident facts—for instance, a claim that the current president is a “founder of ISIS” or was born in Kenya—free societies place long-term faith in the concept of the marketplace of ideas. They are built as well on the belief that in diverse democracies people will have to put up with views contrary to their own. (Yes, I do realize that there are different, more permissive legal standards for false statements about public figures.)
All politicians end up resenting the press, while also courting and relying on it. I am not aware of any other president or major-party nominee who has used air-quotes around “freedom of the press” or publicly made arguments about its limits similar to this latest one from Trump, with 85 days to go until the election.
I am aware, though, of some other thoughts on this theme:
If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.
Sometime this week, you might walk outside in broad daylight, look up at the sky, and see a luminous orb as bright as a full moon. Only it wouldn’t be the moon. It would be something far more explosive: the dazzling aftermath of a cataclysm hundreds of light-years away.
You’d be seeing the light from a supernova—the final, powerful flash of a dying star.
Or … you might see the regular old sky. Supernovas are nearly impossible to predict. But astronomers have recently started discussing the rare possibility with a bit more enthusiasm than usual, thanks to some odd behavior elsewhere in the Milky Way. If the supernova did show up tomorrow, it would be the celestial event of the year, perhaps even the century, leaving a cosmic imprint in the sky for all to see.
A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
Christopher Hitchens and I weren’t close friends—I was a lesser planet in his orbit. Every so often I felt the rhetorical lash of his published words on my back, and then I tried to make him feel mine, and you can guess who got the better of those exchanges. They usually had to do with Iraq. We both supported the war, but I supported it in an ambivalent, liberal way, while Christopher supported it in a heroic, revolutionary way. The more I saw of the war, the deeper my despair became. Christopher made it a point of honor never to call retreat.
I know of many friendships that ended in those years, including a few of mine. But something strange happened between Christopher and me. For every time he called me a split-the-difference bien-pensant, and for every time I called him a pseudo–Lord Byron, we seemed to become better friends. We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher.
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.
1. The Disappearance
At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator.
While public attention is focused on the Senate, the president is making controversial policy moves.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, said days after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Emanuel’s point was that a moment of cataclysm meant a chance for big structural reforms that wouldn’t be possible in moments of calm.
But there are other ways to take advantage of a crisis, as the Trump administration is demonstrating right now. Even as the president’s impeachment trial moves forward, the White House is acting aggressively on a range of policy proposals that are politically, legally, or morally suspect, wagering—probably correctly—that the press and the people will mostly overlook them amid the drama in the Senate.
It isn’t, as has sometimes been claimed, that Trump wanted to be impeached, or that the impeachment is somehow a brilliant Machiavellian distraction he has orchestrated. The president has made clear that he wants the trial over as quickly as possible. But as long as it’s going on, the White House is using the crisis as best as it can.
The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.
On a sweltering July day, I follow Annise Dobson down an overgrown path into the heart of Seton Falls Park. It’s a splotch of unruly forest, surrounded by the clamoring streets and cramped rowhouses of the Bronx. Broken glass, food wrappers, and condoms litter the ground. But Dobson, bounding ahead in khaki hiking pants with her blond ponytail swinging, appears unfazed. As I quickly learn, neither trash nor oppressive humidity nor ecological catastrophe can dampen her ample enthusiasm.
At the bottom of the hill, Dobson veers off the trail and stops in a shady clearing. This seems like a promising spot. She kicks away the dead oak leaves and tosses a square frame made of PVC pipe onto the damp earth. Then she unscrews a milk jug. It holds a pale yellow slurry of mustard powder and water that’s completely benign—unless you’re a worm.
And a resulting acquittal verdict would present Americans with something far worse than a constitutional crisis.
On the opening day of the impeachment trial, the Senate, in a party-line vote of 53–47, approved an organizing resolution establishing the ground rules for the trial and rejecting efforts by Democrats to compel the testimony of witnesses and the production of documents not included by the House in its impeachment inquiry. However, the resolution allows Democrats to renew their motions to subpoena witnesses and documents after House managers and the president’s defense lawyers have completed their opening statements. The fateful battle over witnesses will thus begin in earnest next week.
In December, Donald Trump became only the third U.S. president to be impeached. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell succeeds in his intention to prevent any witnesses from testifying, Trump will become the first president to be acquitted by an unconstitutional impeachment process.
False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Donald Trump faces the diciest moment of his presidency, a Senate impeachment trial, with a pair of distinct handicaps: shattered credibility and a West Wing that is broken into fiefdoms and often clueless about his intentions. Both were years in the making; neither seems easily fixed.
From the outside, these can seem like two different problems. But in many ways, they’re one and the same. False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Start with a president who is a solitary decision maker and who has swept aside early staff efforts to vet the material he sees. Trump now absorbs information, innuendo, gossip, and calumny wherever he finds it. He’s getting it from random Twitter feeds and old friends, from overseas autocrats and pro-Trump talking heads. He’ll repeat rumor as fact without naming the source.
In the past half century, the number of bathrooms per American has doubled.
American exceptionalism takes on many forms, both flattering (our immigrant-founded start-ups) and unfortunate (our health-care prices). But perhaps no part of life in the United States is more unambiguously exceptional than this: We have so many damn bathrooms.
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”
In April 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a march of black protesters without a permit, urging an Easter boycott of white-owned stores. A statement published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen, criticized the march and other demonstrations.
This prompted King to write a lengthy response, begun in the margins of the newspaper. He smuggled it out with the help of his lawyer, and the nearly 7,000 words were transcribed. The eloquent call for “constructive, nonviolent tension” to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement. The letter was printed in part or in full by several publications, including the New York Post, Liberation magazine, The New Leader, and The Christian Century. The Atlantic published it in the August 1963 issue.
Political hobbyism is to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics. They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
For Querys Matias, politics isn’t just a hobby. Matias is a 63-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small city on the New Hampshire border. In her day job, Matias is a bus monitor for a special-needs school. In her evenings, she amasses power.