As David Sims wrote in his piece “Alec Baldwin’s Scarier, Nastier Donald Trump,” Alec Baldwin gave us a very funny Trump, and a somewhat darker characterization than we normally see from Saturday Night Live. However, it is not the darkest or best Trump impression to emerge in this election season, and it clearly borrowed from the one that is.
Earlier this year, comic Anthony Atamanuik appeared as Trump in a number of appearances on comedy shows, often debating Bernie Sanders (as portrayed very humorously by James Adomian). While Baldwin’s had elements of Darrell Hammond’s goofy Trump, it is indeed closer to Drunk Uncle or Archie Bunker. Atamanuik, by contrast, is nonchalantly ghoulish—an uncensored peek into the dark heart of the Trump id as we fear it to be, if that were then blown up to full size and presented without any other element of Trump’s personality. Baldwin’s use of “Gina” was pioneered by Atamanuik’s Trump, who repeatedly asserted that Gina was the enemy. With Atamanuik, this is just getting started, as he will casually promise to kill everyone, repeatedly tell young women that he can buy them and even tell one she has soft skin which he could remove if he wanted.
I was blindsided by this routine when I happened to see a version of this mock debate on Comedy Central’s show At Midnight. It feels like genuinely dangerous comedy and was clearly the inspiration for SNL to go a bit beyond their glitz and goofiness in the characterization of a man who may truly be a hollowed out shell animated only by primitive drives.
Watch for yourself below. I caught the first seven minutes and it’s truly packed with talent and blunt dark humor that doesn’t feel petty. (For example, Baldwin’s Trump referring to Lester Holt as “jazz man” and “Coltrane” felt cheap and lazy, compared to Atamanuik’s inspired riff on “white power”—watch here as a standalone clip.)
Donald Trump has soaked up an astronomical amount of free media over the past year—$2 billion worth as long ago as March and more than $31 million worth from Sean Hannity alone—but an Atlantic reader, Eric, turns our attention local. He wonders if there’s a significant contrast between national and local news when it comes to crime coverage and whether that difference is driving support for Trump:
Something came to mind a few nights ago while I was watching the presidential debates: Is Trump a product of local TV news? I was struck and saw, for the first time, how disconnected the world that Donald Trump was describing seemed from reality in America—not just on the coasts, but everywhere. It got me thinking about his comments in the past regarding minority communities, crime, and social breakdown as a whole. Those don’t reflect the America you’d read in the mainstream media, hear on public radio, or see on network news broadcasts, but they do sound vaguely like one non-partisan news source that I’m familiar with: the local TV news.
I don’t watch much local news, and neither do most people in know, so I decided to look into it a little further. What I discovered was that 57 percent of American adults often get their news through television, with 46 percent saying that’s through local TV news. Considering that local news has become, for the most part, weather, traffic, and sports (40 percent of broadcasts, according to Pew) with crime reports (17 percent) and accidents/disasters (13 percent) in between, it strikes me as understandable that Trump’s “law and order” message has some resonance. After all, if the main source of news is local TV, then nearly a third of the time not dedicated to traffic, weather, and sports is about crime in the local community. Even if crime weren’t rising, the ubiquity of its coverage would give the impression that it’s getting worse.
Then there is the long running issue with racial bias in local news coverage. The go-to study on the topic is by J.H. Lipschultz and it’s called “Race and Local Television News Crime Coverage.” In it, Lipschultz mentions how much local news can shape and reinforce our attitudes about race, but one passage really stuck out to me:
[T]he reinforcement of stereotypical assumptions about race may be driven by local TV news coverage: “... crime coverage may be reinforcing hegemony by reinforcing inscribed ideas about who commits crime (people of color), where most crimes occur (communities of color), and where crimes should not occur (White, affluent neighborhoods)”
If coverage like this is still the norm (the study is from 2003), then is it any wonder that Trump’s claims about African-Americans “shot walking down the street” sounds right to some voters?
For many, local TV crime stories are their only insight into communities of color. It’s rare that the news covers the positive things going on there—with the exception of the occasional school or park opening—because they’re crunched for airtime and it’s not what viewers want. And since minority communities are generally viewed as unsafe by whites (another product of local TV crime coverage, according to Lipschultz), most haven’t spent any time there. For the near-majority of Americans whose primary news source is local TV news, crime, murder, and black go together so often that anything negative that’s said about the state of African-American communities seems plausible.
Now perhaps I’m way off base here (and I hope I am!) and I’m making a connection that doesn’t really exist, but I was hoping to posit a theory and get your readers’ thoughts.
I am finding myself nodding along with your reader who talks through Trumpism as a product of local news coverage. In The Culture of Fear, Dr. Barry Glassner talks about how, as violent crime dropped, local news coverage of violent crime increased, creating a perception among views that crime was getting worse, not better. As local news competed for ratings in dimensions beyond the joviality of their sportsman, the accuracy of their weather, and the attractiveness or tenure of their anchorpersons, they could not advertise about their propensity to lead with what bleeds, but they could certainly make the stories with blood and fire lead ahead of the coverage of the local government or consumer complaints.
Because of the nature of televised news, being a visual medium, it excels at spot news, things that happen at a time, at a place, on the spot. It is considerably less good, especially on a nightly turnaround schedule, at covering stories that have less compelling visuals and that require deeper analysis. As such, those who get their news from their local 5 or 6 o’clock news are pumped full of fear, whether it be fear of crime or fear of weather. Those who read newspapers—a declining group—get a more detailed story, and those who read news magazines might get more perspective on more complicated stories than nightly local news can provide.
As such, I don’t really watch televised news at all. I have enough anxiety in my life without a daily half hour or hour of straight fear being pumped into my house.
I’m reminded of the 2014 film Nightcrawler, a disturbingly dark portrait of a bootstrapped cameraman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in his best performance yet) who burrows his way into the center of the local news world of L.A. by increasingly sensationalizing and ultimately orchestrating the violent episodes he records. His sociopathic stunts are bad enough, but the desperation of the deeply cynical news director (played by Rene Russo) turns into one of the most vivid critiques of the news business I’ve seen yet. It comes down to the ratings, of course, even after she fully discovers how twisted he is. My colleague Chris Orr wrote a reliably sharp review of the film, and here’s the trailer, and here’s a representative scene:
Another reader, Steve, finds that local news—at least the station he watches—engages in false equivalence and he said/she said coverage when it comes to the presidential election:
When I saw the headline of Trump being a product of local TV news, what I thought was going to follow was be something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It wasn’t. Instead it ended up hitting on a different topic ... that I've also been thinking a lot about lately. I’ll try to be brief, but I wanted to comment on both:
The first is the topic of local TV news, which is something I think gets overlooked in all the political media commentary. People watching the Sunday morning shows, or reading The Atlantic, usually have some formed opinion about the people/issues. No one watches the Sunday morning talking heads because they don’t know how they’re going to vote. They do so to reaffirm what they already believe by panel experts. (Or to get really mad at ridiculous “political opinions” getting airtime.) There was something that someone said—I don’t remember who/where—about the Matt Lauer debacle and why it mattered: most people get their political news from watered-down sources. In the big picture, the things said on Sunday mornings are much less important than than the things said on weekday mornings, tucked in-between the sports and weather.
I love my WGN Morning News in Chicago. But it’s everything from eye-rolling to stomach-churning in how much false equivalence there is every morning: there’s always a Trump controversy, and then there’s equal airtime for a Clinton controversy. Every day. And the Trump controversies are just about always something he actually said or something he actually did—lots of things that would normally disqualify someone from being president (see Trump Time Capsule).
But the Clinton controversies are usually along the lines of: someone from the Trump camp said she was corrupt; someone from the Trump camp said there’s questions about the emails; someone from the Trump camp says she’s unfit to president. Every morning, equal airtime, unequal controversies.
While much has been said about “the media” trying too hard appear fair—being too soft on Trump and too hard on Clinton in the process—I feel like that critique has been aimed at the big media/news institutions. I know it has not trickled down to the local players, where most people get their news, and I fear that it won’t in this election.
The second thing that reader Eric hits on here is trying to claim why Trump describes African-American communities as he does, and why this perception of these communities has become such a talking point in his campaign. It’s because he’s racist and he’s speaking to racists. Black communities are dangerous and not like ours. Black people are dangerous and not like us. If only some law and order went in there to clean them up, it would make them more like us. He’s not projecting what society tells us; he’s giving his audience “the problem” they want to hear is a problem. This goes hand-in-hand with his “minority outreach” really being aimed at suburban white voters, which much has already been said about.
The people who are for Donald Trump, are for him. And almost nothing he can say or do, or that can be said or revealed about him, will undercut that support. The things that ordinarily would be considered “shocking” or “disqualifying” haven’t eroded belief among his base, and probably won’t.
But there are not enough of these people to get 270 electoral votes for Trump. There were enough to give him an initial plurality in a huge GOP field, and to keep him coming out ahead as his GOP rivals foolishly attacked one another rather than concentrating on him. But in the general election his core support has remained below winning levels in virtually all honest polls. He has so far seemed to hit a ceiling at around 40% support—sobering in itself, but not enough.
Therefore he needs new supporters—more women, more blacks and Latinos and Asians, more Muslims, more educated people, more of the young.
Therefore2, the test of everything Trump does now—the debates, the “Miss Piggy” controversy, the taxes, everything—is whether it brings him anyone new. The question is not the one we mainly hear after debates or Trump flaps: how this affects his supporters. They already support him. The question is whether what he does and says brings in anyone undecided, or new.
My guess is that is has not.
The main point is: since Trump starts with not enough votes to win, the logical test to apply, in the 36 days that remain, is whether what he does with each speech, each answer in a debate, each tweet, each flux of the news cycle, expands his base. If it doesn’t, he has lost.
Following installment #119 in the Trump Time Capsule series, which contrasted Donald Trump’s “they’re freeloaders!” complaint about NATO allies with his own “that makes me smart!” comment about not paying taxes himself, readers weigh in.
1) If this makes Trump “smart,” most people are forced to be dumb. Friend-of-the-site and Congressional veteran Mike Lofgren highlights an aspect I neglected to mention:
An important point that wasn’t emphasized is that among the vast majority of Trump’s supporters, not paying taxes isn’t even an option, regardless of how much they might want to chisel the IRS.
FICA taxes are automatically deducted, and the employer automatically files a W2. The option of setting up tax-exempt foundations, shell companies, and engaging in transfer pricing simply does not exist for these folks.
An ordinary person would resent someone who can get away with various tax dodges; maybe Trump’s supporters have such a masochistic identification with him that it doesn’t matter.
2. Only the little people pay. From a reader in California:
With his recent “That Makes Me Smart” comment at the debate, I am reminded of Leona Helmsley, famous for saying, as I’m sure you remember, “Only the little people pay taxes.” I haven’t seen anyone make the connection recently, perhaps I have missed it, but they have much in common.
I know she went to jail for a while and while refreshing my memory with Wikipedia and Google, I see that she had the same attitude towards not paying contractors and taxes as Trump does. Seems they were both friends and rivals as well. Billionaires with no empathy for the “little people” they mock and ruin. Too bad Trump is unlikely to meet the same fate Helmsley did, but it certainly would be fitting.
3. Come back, Mitt; all is forgiven. A reader points out differences between the two most recent GOP nominees:
People have pointed out similarities between how Romney explained his low tax rate at his debate (“I pay all the taxes owed. And not a penny more. I don’t think we want someone running for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”) and Trump (“That [paying zero tax] makes me smart!”).
But there’s a difference: A possible explanation for Trump's refusal to release his returns is that Trump annually cheats on his taxes and puts the burden on the IRS to investigate and sue him to get paid. It’s just one facet of his selfish personality where he derives a minor benefit from majorly inconveniencing others. Romney revealed he’d been audited at least once and was found to be in compliance... has anyone asked Trump what the results were from his past audits?
4. If he’s not paying taxes, why does he care about “takers”? A reader in Florida examines another logical paradox:
In context of the last 8 years (at least) of Republican claims about “makers and takers” and their whole Ayn Rand sensibility, doesn’t the expressed sentiment by their party leader—“I’m smart not to pay taxes”—reveal the glaring inconsistency—fraud, even—at the heart of the Republican ethos? If he’s already not paying taxes in this country—something that was also suspected of Mitt Romney (Mr. 47%)—how exactly are the so-called “takers” holding him back?
Does Trump’s statement not conflict with Trump’s tax plan, which would aim tax breaks toward the wealthy, but not so much for the “left behind middle class” he purports to represent? Isn’t he exactly like Leona Helmsley (“taxes are for the little people”)?
And yet he’s not perceived as a completely selfish elitist.
5) And while we’re talking about taxes. A reader suggests another angle:
After the debate Monday, I was thinking about Trump’s comments about forcing companies to pay a huge tax when importing from their international factories. Forget how he can actually implement that as president.
Would it apply to his own foreign investments? How is a Trump hotel in Rio or golf course in Scotland different from a Ford plant in Mexico or a TI plant in the Philippines?
I don't recall seeing this idea being explored anywhere, but after googling today, I did found this article that covers my thoughts pretty well. It’s over a year old ...
39 days and a few hours until the election; early voting starting in some places now; tax returns (of course!) not forthcoming; GOP “leadership” still standing firm behind their guy.
A video posted by Chill Wildlife™ 🖖🏼 (@chillwildlife) on
I’m helping my colleague Jim Fallows with some housecleaning regarding the massive amount of reader email piling up over Donald Trump. One notes for the record:
I appreciate your Trump Time Capsule serial, but I think you all have missed one. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I am unaware of a presidential candidate ever releasing his (or her)testosterone level before? Since Trump has released so little other health information, the message it sends is … I can’t find the words for it.
Speaking of the Time Capsule, this reader has an apt literary reference:
It seems this passage from Lewis Carroll “fits” your Time Capsule: Alice laughed/said, “One can’t believe impossible things.” The Queen replied, “I daresay you haven’t much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 5)
This scene from Tim Burton’s version of the Carroll classic has a certain resonance with last night’s debate:
In 1992, my most favorite car ever was stolen from the streets of New York City while protected by The Club. When I reported the theft to police and insurance, I learned that The Club is not a deterrent; it is actually an aid to car thieves. I didn’t grasp the details at the time, but as I was reading your post about the Trump-Pence car, I remembered how my confidence in The Club was disappointed and found this paragraph on Freakonomics:
A pro thief would carry a short piece of a hacksaw blade to cut through the plastic steering wheel in a couple seconds. They were then able to release The Club and use it to apply a huge amount of torque to the steering wheel and break the lock on the steering column (which most cars were already equipped with). The pro thieves actually sought out cars with The Club on them because they didn’t want to carry a long pry bar that was too hard to conceal.
So there’s a pretty rich irony in this whole metaphor: a voter who is frightened by threats that aren’t real, or aren’t statistically significant, trusts a protector who will not provide any meaningful protection, who will, in addition, make the voter more vulnerable. Trump has cheated employees, lenders, stockholders, charities, customers, and now he’s setting himself up to cheat his voters and supporters too.
Thanks for sharing the link! This is awesome! In just two minutes, I was able to answer a question that long bedeviled me: on Planet Trump, what are all the failing media operations? The answer:
The New York Times (the champion by far), CNN, New York Daily News, Glenn Beck/The Blaze, National Review, Manchester Union Leader, Politico, Daily Beast, Des Moines Register, Weekly Standard, The View, Vanity Fair, Bill Maher, Huffington Post, DC Examiner, New York Magazine
Meanwhile the Washington Post only gets a one-time appellation of “phony.” Clearly, the Fahrenthold stories aren’t stinging too much.
Fallows covered the latest from Fahrenthold yesterday. Another reader takes a big step back to try to understand this moment in political history:
Maybe some part of the electorate has always been paranoid. But like your reader [who saw the Trump-Pence bumper sticker] points out, this year seems a watershed. I can see some reasons:
1. LGBT marriage equality: Came SO fast, I don’t think people have processed it yet. As they are struggling to cope with this decidedly liberal agenda, the wedding cake mafia is not helping either. No one likes being held hostage to ideas in their own home/city/country.
2. Globalization: Everyone else is doing SO much better (esp China?!). Our jobs have gone abroad, our towns devastated by meth epidemic, and all the Dems want to talk about is refugees and queers. (Totally ignores the real issue: looming automation that is going to suck up more jobs—self-driving cars?)
3. Black Lives Matter: The mostly white support base for Trump does not like being faced with facts such as police brutality. As long as it’s mostly black kids who get mowed down, it confirms their worldview that black kids are mostly thugs. BLM movement does not help its own cause when it moves from protest to looting and arson, feeding the thug narrative.
4. PC police: “microaggression,” “triggers,” “safe space,” “cultural appropriation.” I am an avowed liberal and I find this hard to stomach. Are we sending kids to college to prepare them for the world as it is, or not? While there is no cause to engage in deliberately insulting and provocative speech (n****r, f****t, and whatnot), chilling campus speech with Dolores Umbridge-like rules and committees is beyond the pale.
5. Spike in death rates of middle-aged whites: Was in the news recently and it was a head scratcher that no one (even NPR) wanted to talk about it other than as an “interesting aside.”
6. Immigration: Again, even as a liberal, I don’t agree with mindless immigration. America used to have enough resources and opportunities to welcome everyone’s tired, poor, huddled masses, but we are not that economy anymore. Perhaps UK’s Theresa May’s approach sounds brutal, but it is commonsense: get the immigrants who will help grow your economy. Here, that conversation is long due—not the Clinton-esque I love all immigrants or Trump’s “I hate all Muslims,” but a nuanced conversation debating the pros and cons and coming up with a comprehensive approach (not going to happen in our lifetimes).
It’s been a long rant already, so I will stop by saying that all this is probably exacerbated by not having trustworthy, reliable, well-informed and principled media or news sources anymore. The New York Times (for me) lost all credibility post W’s wars. Newspapers have been atrophying and dying off. We are left with a babble of self-important idiots, tweeting their opinions. The loudest and crassest always wins, evidenced by Trump. You guys are good but mostly whistling in the wind.
Another reader also mentions the New York Times—specifically its long-time columnist Maureen Dowd:
FWIW, I listened to a Dowd interview on the Diane Rehm Show. It was transcendently awful. Among several howlers:
Dowd made many definitive pronouncements on the characters of both Clintons, Trump, and Obama. Yet when a caller objected that her snarky, mean-girl tone, relativizing of the candidates, and general levity were inappropriate to a situation in which the norms of human decency were at stake, MoDo condescendingly suggested the caller didn’t know the difference between a journalist and a columnist, and refused to engage further on the matter.
Another caller mentioned parallels with It Can’t Happen Here. Sinclair Lewis was one of the better-known American novelists of the past century, and the book is widely known. And in the last year, it would be virtually impossible to be closely engaged with the presidential campaign without running across references to the book (Google “Trump Sinclair Lewis” and you get 485,000 hits). MoDo had never heard of it.
Here’s one more reader trying to make sense of the Trump phenomenon:
I’ve considered yearning for power, the appeal of self-dealing at the highest level, and all sorts of motivations. And I’ve especially been stumped by Trump’s appeal to the masses. Really worked on that one and couldn’t come up with much. He pings the right tones for racists, homophobes, the afraid, and so on, but those things don’t really explain the broader appeal. The Trump Revealed book helped fill in some gaps but didn’t explain today’s situation. I’m a fairly smart guy with a 2+ hour daily commute, so I have a lot of time to think about this. But I think I’ve figured it out ...
It is simply the striving to be the most famous person on earth. Nothing more or less. The common theme across everything I’ve read or observed about him says that Donald Trump wants to be the most famous person in the world, and that person of course is the president of the United States. How many Americans can name the Prime Minister of New Zealand? How many New Zealanders do you think know who Barack Obama is?
As a pathological liar, nothing he says can logically made sensible. I don’t think he will even give a sideways glance to the “wall” or mass deportations or any of his promised acts if he’s elected. He’ll continue to lie and take credit for doing them anyway, or take credit for not doing them. Doesn't matter. He’ll move towards the next outrageous thing that will add to his fame. Or infamy. That’s his arc—it always has been.
If he were to get elected, I predict impeachment or resignation within a year—as long as the circumstances bring even more publicity.
And it explains his appeal. He’s Kim Kardashian, Kanye, Branjolina, Justin Bieber, and Madonna to the nth power. I’ve always felt a sense of of fandom in his flock. The same sense that makes the Red Sox the best team to Bostonians or causes people in DC to root for the Redskins in spite of Dan Snyder and RG III. They’re our team. We picked them and by God, we’re sticking with them no matter what they do.
And when our team loses, it’s the bad calls, the other team cheating, the lightweights who didn’t pull their weight. Sound familiar? The elections are rigged unless he wins. The courts are skewed. It will always be the other guy’s fault.
I’m gonna take a break from trying to think about this for a while.
James Fallows is a hero for plowing through and creating some sense out of what is happening in our politics. I tried watching some of the comments [Monday] night and by the experts on received wisdom at Morning Joe for a few minutes. And I have long been trying to make sense out of what talking heads say about this being a change election. I think what they mean is “novelty.” That is the only way I can grasp the apparent appeal of the con artist whose name I will not use. (He has enough attention.) The reader who wrote that he wants to be the most famous person in the world is on to something.
What about the many of us who want continued reasonable stability and who can’t believe the Obama years are about to end? Why doesn’t the talking head culture talk about us?
Here’s another reader, Renie:
Here’s what I still wonder after all this time (and after watching the terrible Frontline episode “The Choice” and reading the latest article on Ivanka Trump as Donald’s surrogate.) Why are women still enabling and excusing bad male behavior when the male in question is their husband or their father? If I were Ivanka Trump, I would think I would want to hide out in Outer Mongolia and never appear in public with her creep of a father or her equally creepy full brothers. He is so obviously ignorant and crooked and a liar. Why would she defend and ally herself with him?
With Hillary, I just can’t imagine the level of humiliation she went through and why she accepted it. And I am close to her age so I’ve never bought the excuse that women of my generation were brought up to accept any level of bad male behavior from their husbands. Don’t get me wrong; I do believe that she is by far the better candidate and is an intelligent and strong woman and that there is no question of who should be president. I also don’t believe that she and Bill made a political deal. That would be rational and I don’t think this kind of behavior is entirely rational.
And on a lighter but still serious note, imagine if “The Choice” episode had spent as much time on the Donald’s appearance and hair as it spent on hers. Just imagine the descriptions and the questions. When did he start dyeing his hair? Did he have hair implants? Was he wearing a rug at the time that Obama humiliated him? What about those ever ballooning suits? He even admits to a weight that puts him awfully close to obese. If he’s subtracting a typical amount, he’s actually well into the obese range. Why does a man of his appearance castigate women? So many questions that no one ever asks him.
Update from one more reader, promise:
Regarding Trump Time Capsule #119, his contractor quote (“Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work.”) seems to me like another example of the fundamental tension between the many claims that Trump has made about his business acumen and its applicability to the office of the President: his business record just doesn’t support a lot of these claims.
From the $14 million starter loan to the number of times he’s filed for bankruptcy (“us[ing] certain laws that were there”), these things show someone whose skill is having a private safety net that allows him to get back on top after each miserable failure rather than someone whose decisions lead to success. His contractor defense has a similar problem: if people are supposed to believe that he won’t be a train-wreck president because of his ability to hire “the best people,” why are there so many examples of his hiring people whose work he found lacking?
If he had stiffed a contractor or two, fine. Sometimes people do a bad job, and if you have the ability to express your dissatisfaction through not paying them, that’s within your rights. But by all appearances, he’s either (a) really bad at selecting contractors (i.e. has a horrible eye for the best people) or (b) using the threat of lawsuits to get out of paying money that he legitimately owes to the contractors that he hired, since “the best people” wouldn’t do work that he would find wanting.
A reader in Southern California whom I’ve corresponded with over the years sent several photos with accompanying description. I’m not using the pictures, for the contradictory reasons that they are blurry looking but also clear enough that they might be identifiable. But I’ve seen them and can say that they support the case the reader makes.
Why is Trump popular? The reader says that he is the living human version of that familiar car safety device, The Club™ from Winner International.
I work on a studio lot in Los Angeles. Hollywood is lousy with liberals, so you can imagine my surprise when I pulled in next to a car with a Trump 2016 sticker. [The reader sent a photo.]
I immediately liked the owner of the Trump car, in the same way that I would like the owner of a Clinton car in the Bible belt. Going against the grain like that takes independent thinking, guts.
But what really got my attention was The Club. [A photo of this, too, across the steering wheel.]
I don't know if you remember The Club, but it was popular in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a long steel bar that you stick in the steering wheel. Truly the only way to prevent car theft.
I haven’t seen a car with The Club in a long time, but I saw one today. It was protecting the Trump car. And this, for me, perfectly sums up the Donald Trump supporter.
To begin with, consider the driver’s morning. To get onto the lot, they had to pass through a security checkpoint. Once on the lot, they were in an officer-patrolled environment. In fact, every inch of this place is monitored with security cameras.
Even if a car thief did decide to break onto the lot and steal a car, there’d be better cars to steal than this one. Suffice it to say, it was middle-of-the-road SUV. A great car, but then again, this is a major Hollywood studio. The car thief would have their pick of Teslas, Porsches, Range Rovers and Bentleys.
In short, all signs point to one conclusion: no one is stealing the Trump supporter’s car.
And yet the Trump supporter was afraid.
That’s because they know better. The world has never been more dangerous, we have never been more vulnerable. We need a wall. We need a stronger military. We need The Club.
And The Club is Donald Trump.
Look, I might be in the wrong. Maybe the car really is in danger. But I’ve spent four years on this lot without a single incident (besides my bumper getting side-swiped by a tour guide’s golf cart). So I’m going to say the car is safe.
Therefore the driver’s fear is not justified. In other words, they're paranoid.
A paranoid electorate is nothing new. I’m sure you’re familiar with Richard Hofstadter’s, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. [Yes.] I’m no political theorist, but he more or less says that we, as citizens, can fall prey to “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial thinking.”
Hofstadter is careful to point out that the paranoid style is not reserved for the right. But this year it is.
Donald Trump is stoking paranoia, perhaps even creating paranoia. And it’s a smart move. Because he is the protector, the strong arm, The Club.
One last point: I’m not saying that ALL Donald Trump supporters are paranoid. I very much dislike that kind of blanket statement (including Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment). In fact, I wouldn’t even venture to guess what percentage of Trump supporters are paranoid. But I do think some are, and I think The Club has merit as a metaphor.
And so going forward I will think of Donald Trump supporters as those who see their country just like they see their car: in imminent danger, in need of The Club.
I DO realize there are limits to the metaphor. The United States is not Paramount Studios. Crime does happen in our country. So do terrorists attacks and tons of other bad stuff. There are legitimate reasons to be afraid.
But paranoia is different, and I think this is a nice example of it.
I agree. A snapshot of part of the American electorate, 2016.
Talk about a time capsule! This is quite an amazing piece of work. Courtesy of a Georgetown grad and former Peace Corps volunteer who now works as a programmer, we now have a searchable archive of 16,000+ tweets from @realDonaldTrump since 2009.
The main page, with selected highlights, is here. The search utility is here. For instance, if you’d like to see all 63 tweets in which Trump calls someone (usually Little Marco) “lightweight,” you can just click here.
You can donate to support the site here. (I have no involvement with it or its creator in any way, except as a citizen grateful for further documentation of our times.)
48 days and a few hours to go. The Republican leadership, minus one former president, is still saying: He’s fine!
Back in 2009, when I was living in China, I was digging into the birther issue. This was before Donald Trump made it his own. But it reflects part of the genius of Trump’s multi-year birther crusade. Let’s think about the fundamental idiocy of the line that the Republican nominee was pushing for many years. Here’s the 2009 post:
I don’t know whether the birthers are petering out on their own. If they’re still around, here’s an additional challenge for them that springs from the glory days of Mad magazine.
A friend has recalled a classic Mad riff from its “Strangely Believe It!” series, produced by comedian Ernie Kovacs in the late Fifties as a knock-off of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It concerned—well, see for yourself, in this detail of a scan of the original page, courtesy of Scott Gosar at TheMadStore.
The punch line—hardee har!—is that news of the baby girl’s birth had to be telegrammed to her mother, who had missed the plane on which the surprise birth occurred.
What’s the connection to the birthers? If Barack Obama had actually been born in Kenya, then his mother would have to have been in Kenya too! I don’t think anyone has dreamed of suggesting that his mother was other than the one he has always claimed, Stanley Ann Dunham. Presumably somewhere in the passport records of the United States or Kenya is information about whether his mother (a) left the United States, or (b) entered Kenya in 1961 when her son was born. If she didn’t leave the United States, including the fully-fledged state of Hawaii, in the summer of 1961, then by definition her child has to have been a natural-born U.S. citizen.
I recognize that if this were a matter of—how do we say?—“reality” or “facts,” it would have been settled long ago, as it has been for everyone except the birther stalwarts. But this is an interesting additional angle worth considering; plus, it’s great to see these detailed old Mad drawings.
So the point is, for Obama to have been born in Kenya, his mother would have had to get there. And there has never been any evidence of any sort that she left Hawaii in the summer of 1961. Good to have a major-party nominee admit it after many years of suggesting the reverse.
Because I’ve been on the road talking about my new story on the upcoming presidential debates—read it here! and then subscribe!—I am again falling behind the accelerating reality of the Trump Time Capsule era. Will add several updates at the next opportunity.
Meanwhile: Yesterday afternoon I spent a long time talking with Brian Beutler, of The New Republic, for his Primary Concerns podcast series. We talked about what the “false equivalence” brouhaha reveals and conceals, what the Trump movement shows and doesn’t about the country, what the political press can and cannot do, and other topics with a yin-and-yang aspect to be explored. We ended on the high note of what we’d each learned about the world from growing up, a generation apart, in the same small inland-California town. I enjoyed it and think you’ll find it interesting. It’s here.
Also, the Atlantic’s video team has made a great short video that accompanies my debate article, and for which I do the voice-over. You can see it here and below.
With 61-plus days until the election, Donald Trump remains the only major-party nominee for the presidency or vice presidency of the post-Watergate era who has refused to release his tax returns. Not coincidentally, of all nominees through that period, Trump also has the most complicated and least-publicly-understood personal and corporate finances.
Why is he drawing the line here? Readers offer their hypotheses:
I started my career with a year as an IRS agent before jumping across the desk to work for a “Big Eight” firm (which I think is now the Big Four?).
It’s been a long time since I’ve been doing taxes, but my gut tells me Trump hasn’t filed in the first place.
I remember being involved with clients who had endured bankruptcies, the implosion of complex energy partnerships, and/or the collapse of the real-estate market.
Their partnership K1s would be delayed for so long that we’d sometimes have to file with numbers we ... well... sorta made up. Once the K1s arrived we could always go back and amend, but by providing some form of a reasonable estimate we could show good faith.
However, there were some clients that hated the tax code, and the entire Byzantine process (not to mention our fees). So some of them opted out until something came along and forced their hand to file (e.g., an audit).
All this to say Trump reminds me of some of those clients who literally kept a small army of accountants and lawyers busy year round. One of my friends called clients like that “Pig-Pen,” after the Peanuts character that always left a trail of dust behind him.
Guys like Trump are “Masters of the Universe,” and maneuver in and out of bankruptcies, and partnerships, and *deals* in such a fluid manner that dealing with the IRS is like just another banker sitting around the table.
“As [a] former … IRS agent in large dollar cases I can tell you why Trump is being audited every year and what he doesn’t want you to know.
“It’s this: high net worth individuals with multiple corporations have tax departments that deliberately take positions they know they can't sustain and just wait for the IRS to go out and hopefully find only a fraction of the money they really owe. It’s a low interest loan from the government to which they don't have to submit an application … just submit a return they know is wrong and wait for the IRS to come along and correct it … thus the annual audits. IRS does not audit unless they are going to get big bucks.
“Simple answer, Trump is a taxcheat. That’s what he doesn’t want you to know.”
After quoting the former IRS agent, the reader adds:
As you mentioned, as long as Trump's tax return remains private, the public is free to speculate as to why he would not release them. You mention over and over again that he hasn’t released them but, unless I’ve missed some of your writing, haven’t delved too much into what it really means.
Right, because I have no idea. All we can logically infer is that something in those returns would be worse and more embarrassing for Trump than his refusal to release them has been.
Another reader speculates on what the source of embarrassment might be:
You have mentioned many times about Trump’s failure to release a medical report. This omission is likely very analogous to his refusal to release his tax returns.
The likelihood is that the reason for both is not either criminality (in the case of his taxes) or infirmity (in the case of his medical records). The likelihood is that both are due to embarrassing private details.
It has often been speculated that his tax returns might show embarrassing details such as much lower than advertised wealth, sleazy financial connections to Russia, or chiseling on charitable donations.
My assumption is that his health-care records reveal a stigmatized health condition. As he was by all accounts, including his own, quite the swordsman in his day (the ’70s and ’80s) there is a very high likelihood he has at some point contracted herpes or HPV. That is the only plausible reason why he would be unwilling to release his medical records. Both conditions are extraordinarily common and total irrelevant to his fitness to be president. But either would be mortifying for him (as well as just about anyone else) to have the condition revealed publicly.
This may be idle speculation but frankly pales in comparison to Trump and his allies’ repulsive Swiftboating of Hillary’s health.
Fred Goldberg’s essay reminds me of an important point about Trump: Throughout this campaign, he has consistently placed his personal and business interests over his duty to the public as a candidate.
From his refusal to disclose tax returns (because it might possibly impact his ongoing audit) to his billing for the use of his business facilities to his trip to Scotland in the middle of the campaign (a task which he could certainly have delegated to one of his children), it has become clear that, if elected President, there will be constant conflicts of interest that arise and that we should have no confidence that he would opt to advance the public’s interests over his own.
A brief note on the value of the returns:
So far there is cloud of unreality investing and obscuring the entire Trump phenomenon . For that reason alone the tax returns are of added value because they will contain at least a breath of reality. They might be the only real thing we can know about this very peculiar candidate.
Finally, a reader refers to something that has been in and out of the news during Trump’s campaign:
With regard to Trump’s taxes, he has received the NY State STAR tax rebate for the past two years. This tax reduction is automatically given to anyone making less than $500,000 in reported income... The STAR rebate has not been revoked as far as I've seen (it is granted electronically). Trump is a billionaire claiming a tax credit meant for middle-class New Yorkers, because of depreciation rules for his real-estate holdings. I'm sure that's a big part of why he doesn't release his tax returns.
There is of course one person who could end all this speculation, and that is none other than the man Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Pat Toomey, and a long list of other luminaries think should become president. He’s also the man at the bottom of the list below, re-upped from yesterday.
Post-Nixon presidential and vice-presidential major-party nominees who have agreed to releasetheir tax returns before the election: Gerald Ford (summary statement), Bob Dole, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Mike Dukakis, Lloyd Bensten, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence.
Seventy days (plus a few hours) until the election, with something like the “real” campaign beginning, these thoughts arrive from readers on how the nation, the party, the press, and others reckon with the reality of a candidate Trump.
1. Asking about torture. A reader suggests a line of questioning:
Why don’t journalists ask Trump surrogates to address Trump’s repeated view that he would advocate torture and killing of families of known terrorists? This seems as abhorrent as any of his positions. Maybe I have missed it but I have never, for example, heard a reporter ask Pence whether he supports this extreme position at odds with basic tenets of civilized behavior, Geneva Convention, rule of law, the reason why we fought WWII, etc.
2. Why the Berlusconi comparison is so useful. An American reader who has been in Europe writes:
I was in Spain this past week, where the collective question about the U.S. political campaign can only be translated as “WTF?” While I am not familiar with members of the entire political spectrum in Spain, my acquaintances are generally shocked at the recklessness and the intellectual vapidity of one of our leading political candidates.
Spaniards tend to respect the U.S. Even those who view the U.S. as a malign force think of it as an incredibly capable country filled with smart (if misguided) people. Mr. Trump’s success is not something they can easily reconcile.
I write that as a preamble to my response to the Black Trump Supporter who chastised you for your coverage of Trump. [JF note: It was from a man named Jamie Douglas, here.] In criticizing your coverage, he points out problems afflicting America and African Americans, in particular. He makes some valid points about the relative (a term to be stressed) success of Black Caribbean and Nigerian immigrants compared to African Americans with long family histories in this country. Smarter people than I will engage on this point. I will only point out that his observations are not reasons to support Donald Trump. They are, at best, reasons to punish Democrats and to “stick it” to those Blacks with whom you’ve disagreed over the years. [JF: I assume this is the impersonal “you,” like on in French or “with whom one has disagreed...” in English. Rather than meant for me!]
Even the reference to immigration (“Illegal immigration has badly hurt the employment prospects and cultural standing of black Americans. I cannot see how any serious person could argue otherwise,” [as the Black Trump Supporter wrote]). I happen to agree that immigration (legal and illegal) has hurt the employment of working-class and unskilled Americans, Blacks included. I believe that the broad studies that focus on wages miss the other reasons that employers select low-skilled laborers (working conditions and deference to authority, for example).
But Mr. Douglas doesn’t support his argument with facts, only rhetoric. So, while I can accept his assertion regarding employment (because of my own research and educational background in economics), I nearly spit out my coffee when he mentioned “cultural standing.”
Look, African Americans have a lot of problems in this country and continue to deal with issues of institutionalized racism, individual racism, police brutality, plus all of the other problems shared by the poor. But if someone would like to define “cultural standing” for me and then explain, not only how that standing is low for African Americans but how it is worse since the Civil Rights Era due to unchecked immigration, I am all ears!
Which brings me back to my opening remarks. As I explained to my Spanish friends, you have to understand the depth of Trump’s support in two ways: The first is his exceptional, if unconventional, rhetorical skills and brand management. When I compare him to Berlusconi, they get it immediately.
The second, and this is where I believe Mr. Douglas comes in based solely on what was published in your Note, is that Americans don't “do policy,” by and large, as an electorate. They “do feelings” and “teams.” Sometimes you vote for your team and sometimes you vote against the other team.
Mr. Douglas’s opinions are perfectly valid as opinions. In fact, I suspect we’d agree on more than few things. They are not, however, reasons to support Trump based on anything one could reasonably argue that a Trump presidency would do (see current back-pedaling on Immigration Policy). Rather, they are reasons to support Trump as a sharp stick in the eye of those with whom you’ve disagreed for many years. Maybe you can’t prove them wrong (hell, that would take actual policy work) but you can make them lose. And on November 9th, that will be good enough. On January 20, 2017, however, and for the years after, it won’t nearly be enough.
3. The candidate of the future. The preceding note says that the end of the Trump candidacy won’t be the end of Trumpism. Another reader to similar effect:
I was curious to see where Mr. Trump would take [his campaign]. Unfortunately, he seems to be stuck on neutral. That is unfortunate.
But he epitomizes the future. The Celebrity as candidate. What is unresolved is the neglected portion of poor working-class whites who found a channel. The Republican Party neglected them. They will still be there.
I thought he had a chance if he was able to get 30 percent of the black vote. I thought that was achievable. Now it seems remote.
Maybe the status quo remains. For now. But not much longer. The pivot is being made historically from the statesman/politician to business leadership. The building of corporate transnationalism and the inability of the nation-state to adequately manage this change bodes for severe transformation. I am unsure of how it will play out.
However, anger and frustration is building in the heartland. At least from Nashville, Indianapolis and Tennessee. The less affluent are my clientele. I give them access to a piece of the American Dream. I resell big box stuff.
My clients are the New Americans: Africans from different parts; Latinos, of which I am now adapted as a dual citizen of Costa Rica; and from other parts. I sell to the New Native Americans: natives of all types and parts of the country. And all is not well. The economy is well enough at this moment to keep the lid from popping off. Let the next economic downturn happen, and I am unsure of how it will play out.
4. Take a stand. Earlier this month I quoted a reader who said that stricter measures were needed to shun or ostracize the Vichy Republicans, the people like Paul Ryan or Pat Toomey who beyond question know what is wrong with Donald Trump but who still officially stand with him. In reply I explained why I thought the most sensible thing someone like me could do is simply to lay out the record, making clear who knows what as the campaign unfolds.
At the same time, I wonder if you are entirely satisfied with where your response leaves the issue, since it appears to have some limitations.
For one thing, the idea that supporting Trump will be “be part of [the] record” for Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and others seems really inadequate as a means of motivating them to denounce Trump. Were they to do so, they would risk serious and immediate professional and personal consequences; given the nature of Trump’s supporters, even violent attack would be possible. The prospect of some general taint on their record, with unspecified consequences, is a very weak deterrent.
Certainly Eisenhower, in the case you cited, did not sustain any obvious damage for his cowardice in 1953; he was triumphantly re-elected in 1956 and had an honored retirement.
As well, this concept fails the test of justice. As you and others (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center) have documented, real people are suffering now from Trump’s effects on the country—let alone the potentially world-historical evils that would result from his election. (McCarthy, whom you mention, did not have the nuclear-launch codes.) Yet your concept leaves those who are supporting him, and who are thus complicit in these evils, with no immediate punishment at all.
And finally, deferring a reckoning in this way really seems, with respect, to let those who have so forcefully denounced these scoundrels (the word is not too harsh, given the indictment presented) off the hook. If you are right in describing their conduct as despicable, then they should be publicly despised—and that despisal should be ongoing and constantly reinforced. After all, the fact that other and better people might save the country from the worst results of their bad conduct by defeating Trump on November 8 does not reduce their culpability.
And those most involved in making the case against them would seem to have an obligation, if they take their own words seriously, to lead the continuing effort to shame them, especially since these critics have access to public fora with which to do so.
The mark of dishonor you correctly believe should attach to Ryan, McConnell, and others will not appear on its own, nor will it be applied by God like the fabled mark of Cain. It will take real effort to resist the tendency, on November 9, to “let bygones be bygones.” And those of us who believe, as I do and as you and others seem to imply, that such an attitude would be a real error have to look to you, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, and others to use your voices to avert it and to continue to hold these people to account. I realize that commentators who take such a position toward figures with major institutional political power risk consequences to themselves; but that would seem to be the price of the stand you and others have so honorably taken.
I hope you will reconsider the approach you outlined on August 12 in favor of a more active position toward those in prominent positions who surely know better, but who are continuing to do nothing to prevent the damage Trump's candidacy is causing, and the far worse damage it threatens in future.
To respond briefly: Yes, I think it contemptible that the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton (along with most incumbent GOP senators); Chris Christie and Mike Pence (along with most incumbent GOP governors); and other people who clearly know better are abetting Trump in this campaign and increasing the chance he might actually win office. In my view, they will always deserve the contempt they are earning with this Vichy-like accommodation—and Republicans and conservatives who have stood against Trump will always deserve respect for their stand (even from those who disagree with them on many other fronts).
But in practical terms, I don’t know what more someone in the press who is opposed to Trump is supposed to do. Does Paul Ryan spend one second worrying about what I think? Does Mitch McConnell spend one nanosecond? Chris Christie might feel bad that his fellow Springsteen fan Jeff Goldberg is calling him one of the “hollow men.” He doesn’t care if I say so.
I made a similar point to this reader, when saying that I would quote his followup. He replied this way:
To be clear: I’m not suggesting that you should take some kind of public lead in a political sense (for example, in trying to remove Trump’s enablers from office).
Rather, I simply hope that you and others who have been so prominent in making the case against the enablers’ behavior should not drop the issue on November 9, regardless of the outcome of the election. If that’s what you mean by “laying out the case in public,” that may be the most you can do.
Fair enough. As I say, it’s 70-plus days until the election, and then a whole national history beginning the next day.
Last night, in Time Capsule #88, I noted the deafening silence of Republican officialdom, after Hillary Clinton delivered her calmly devastating indictment of Donald Trump’s racist themes.
After this frontal attack on their own party’s chosen nominee, the rest of the GOP leadership said ... nothing. The cable-news Trump advocates were out in force, but senators? Governors? Previous candidates? Wise men and women of the party? Crickets.
A reader who is not a Trump supporter says there’s a logic to the plan:
I think you might be missing the GOP strategy here regarding Sec. Clinton’s bigotry speech, and the fact that no Republican came forward to defend Donald Trump. Republicans know that she spoke the truth—the indefensible truth about Donald Trump—and they want to squelch any discussion about it. That’s what they are doing.
Because they don’t want this speech on the airwaves, debated on panels, over several news cycles, with more and more of the dirty laundry getting debated in the mainstream news cycles, leading the Nightly News with dramatic music. Screaming headlines. Any any—ANY—statement by a Republican will trigger that discussion that no GOPer wants.
The mainstream news guys are sitting there at their email boxes, waiting, waiting, for statements, so they can write a piece on it. Benjy Sarlin mentioned it on Twitter, which you probably saw. [JF: I have now] And a couple of other journos, agreed.
But without some outraged statement from Ryan, Cruz, anybody, the mainstream journos have nothing to write about, there is no news cycle, no panels, no screaming headlines, no multi-news cycle. Just a Wow! Clinton gave a rough speech!” End of story. And that’s the strategy. Bury this story. And it’s working.
That’s how the GOP handles this kind of story. And it works just fine, every time. The mainstream journos can't find a both-sides hook, and they are nervous about this alt-right stuff anyway, so the story dies. Journos fear the brutality of GOP pushback. So it goes. Every. Time.
Contrast that with the non-story about the Clinton Foundation. Every GOPer was sending out a truckload of statements to keep that story going. Chuck Todd has stated in the past that he—they—have no choice but to write about whatever the GOP is upset about because they all put their shoulder to the wheel. And the GOP always has something for journos to write about. Controversy! And no fear of brutality from the Democrats. That’s how that goes.
The Nest is a brilliantly cast thriller and one of the year’s best films.
In The Nest,a family moves into an English mansion in the countryside filled with opulent rooms, creaky staircases, and secret passages. The setup is familiar for a horror film: A happy couple buys a mysterious property and discovers, upon arrival, that something is terribly wrong with the house. The movie, directed by Sean Durkin, opens with appropriate portentousness, a discordant piano score clanging over the title card. But in this case, it’s not the house that’s the problem—it’s the family, and the greedy quest for status that first led them to this gargantuan manor.
The Nest is a long-awaited and brilliant follow-up from Durkin, who emerged in 2011 with his filmmaking debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, but hadn’t directed a movie since. His first work also had the overtones of a horror film and the narrative meat of a serious family drama, exploring the fraught relationship between four sisters after one of them is freed from a Manson-family-like collective. Nothing in The Nest is quite as dramatic as a murderous cult, but the same sense of dread pervades the thriller, as Rory (played by Jude Law) and Allison O’Hara (Carrie Coon) see their relationship crumble under the financial burden of the colossal home they’ve bought.
This isn’t over, folks. While the decision to begin the transition process does amount to an implicit concession by the president, Trump hasn’t yet explicitly acknowledged his loss—and there areindications he might never do so. As I write, in fact, the president is continuingto insist that the “2020 Election Hoax” will “go down as the most corrupt election in American political history,” that he will continue to press this case, and that he “will never concede to fake ballots & ‘Dominion.’”
The U.S. entered the coronavirus recession with a few structural advantages. Its success may not last for long.
Here is a remarkable, underappreciated fact: The U.S. economy has performed far better than that of many of the country’s peers during this horrible year. The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. economy to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020, versus 5.3 percent in Japan, 6 percent in Germany, 7.1 percent in Canada, and nearly 10 percent in both the United Kingdom and France.
This fact is not a result of the United States managing its public-health response better than those countries, allowing it to reopen from lockdown sooner and for consumption to roar back. Indeed, many of those peer nations have had significantly better outcomes, as measured by COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations, and death rates. Nor is it a result of the U.S. preserving more jobs. The unemployment rate here is far higher here than it is in Japan, Germany, or the U.K.
More people than ever are hospitalized with COVID-19. Health-care workers can’t go on like this.
On Saturday morning, Megan Ranney was about to put on her scrubs when she heard that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. That day, she treated people with COVID-19 while street parties erupted around the country. She was still in the ER in the late evening when Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris made their victory speeches. These days, her shifts at Rhode Island Hospital are long, and they “are not going to change in the next 73 days,” before Biden becomes president, she told me on Monday. Every time Ranney returns to the hospital, there are more COVID-19 patients.
Prenatal testing is changing who gets born and who doesn’t. This is just the beginning.
Photographs by Julia Sellmann
Every few weeks or so, Grete Fält-Hansen gets a call from a stranger asking a question for the first time: What is it like to raise a child with Down syndrome?
Sometimes the caller is a pregnant woman, deciding whether to have an abortion. Sometimes a husband and wife are on the line, the two of them in agonizing disagreement. Once, Fält-Hansen remembers, it was a couple who had waited for their prenatal screening to come back normal before announcing the pregnancy to friends and family. “We wanted to wait,” they’d told their loved ones, “because if it had Down syndrome, we would have had an abortion.” They called Fält-Hansen after their daughter was born—with slanted eyes, a flattened nose, and, most unmistakable, the extra copy of chromosome 21 that defines Down syndrome. They were afraid their friends and family would now think they didn’t love their daughter—so heavy are the moral judgments that accompany wanting or not wanting to bring a child with a disability into the world.
The minute we make any decision—I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative.
Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet. A short time later, believing that they would be rescued once they had shed their “earthly containers” (their bodies), all 39 members killed themselves.
Heaven’s Gate followers had a tragically misguided conviction, but it is an example, albeit extreme, of cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives. This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.
A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.
Peter Turchin, one of the world’s experts on pine beetles and possibly also on human beings, met me reluctantly this summer on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he teaches. Like many people during the pandemic, he preferred to limit his human contact. He also doubted whether human contact would have much value anyway, when his mathematical models could already tell me everything I needed to know.
But he had to leave his office sometime. (“One way you know I am Russian is that I cannot think sitting down,” he told me. “I have to go for a walk.”) Neither of us had seen much of anyone since the pandemic had closed the country several months before. The campus was quiet. “A week ago, it was even more like a neutron bomb hit,” Turchin said. Animals were timidly reclaiming the campus, he said: squirrels, woodchucks, deer, even an occasional red-tailed hawk. During our walk, groundskeepers and a few kids on skateboards were the only other representatives of the human population in sight.
The new Netflix film is a think-piece trap—shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside.
“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds,” declares Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), the wise grand-matriarch of Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. “A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” I hate to correct Mamaw, who is trying to encourage her impressionable grandson, J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), to follow a righteous path by invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beloved action franchise. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” Terminator; those cyborg heroes exist to either protect or destroy. I cannot imagine what a neutral Terminator would do, save sit in a chair and remain forever shiny and inactive.
Mamaw is entitled to her bad movie opinions, of course. But this monologue is the kind of speechifying that rings hollow throughout Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir that debuts on Netflix tomorrow. When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.
This is why you can eat in a restaurant but can’t have Thanksgiving.
Two weeks ago, I staged a reluctant intervention via Instagram direct message. The subject was a longtime friend, Josh, who had been sharing photos of himself and his fiancé occasionally dining indoors at restaurants since New York City, where we both live, had reopened them in late September. At first, I hadn’t said anything. Preliminary research suggests that when people congregate indoors, an infected person is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside. But restaurants are open legally in New York, and I am not the COVID police. Josh and I had chatted several times in the early months of the pandemic about safety, and I felt sure that he was making an informed decision, even if it wasn’t the one I’d make.
Joe Biden’s walloping victory in the popular vote didn’t translate down-ballot.
Joe Biden marked an unexpected and unwanted milestone this month when he won a clear popular-vote majority in the presidential election but saw his party suffer substantial losses in the House of Representatives.
That unusual combination of results—the first time it’s happened in more than 120 years—crystallizes the core challenge Democrats face in translating their consistent victories in the popular vote into congressional power. In geographic terms, their coalition is deep but narrow. The party has consolidated its hold on the nation’s largest metropolitan centers, which allows it to amass substantial popular-vote victories, but it has systematically declined in the smaller places beyond them—a dynamic that’s intensified during Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency.