Two of my long-time, politically well-experienced friends have been in Nevada recently, doing get-out-the-vote work. Independently, each has just sent me a note saying that their experience and observations match what the Jon “the sage of Nevada” Ralston has been reporting: Namely, a huge surge in early voting among Democrats and especially Latinos in Nevada, which bodes very negatively for Donald Trump’s prospects there and by implication elsewhere.
I haven’t been in Nevada so can’t compare impressions first-hand. But I can say that based on what Deb and I have seen around the country in the past few months—in Central Valley and inland southern California, in western Kansas, in rust-belt Pennsylvania and Michigan, in both Mississippi and Alabama—I’ve been preparing for the least surprising “surprise” of election day. Namely, “surprisingly” high turnout among Latino voters, which will play a “surprisingly” important part in sparing the country and the world a Donald Trump presidency, if in fact we are to be spared.
The surprise factor depends on Latinos across the country being more deeply offended by everything about Trump’s campaign, from “they’re rapists” onward—and being more determined to show up and vote than their past often-low turnout rates might have indicated or (the surprise part) than this year’s polling may fully capture. I’m not a pollster, but all the anecdotal and reportage evidence we’ve come across supports both halves of this equation. People are really (and rightly) offended. And they are really determined to make their views known.
(I’m prepared for a similar “surprise” in the margin from women voters but don’t know of early-voting results that yet give such indications.)
I’ve argued for years, for instance here and here, that the long-term secret of American greatness is its ability to draw on an outsized share of the world’s talent, entrepreneurial creativity, culture, heart, and general human genius through its openness to people of many races and backgrounds. Latino Americans have long had higher-than-average rates of service and sacrifice in the U.S. military. In 2016, they may be defending American freedoms in another way.
With his ill-advised intrusions into this year’s election, FBI Director James Comey has already damaged U.S. interests and the fabric of American democracy more grievously than even Hillary Clinton’s harshest critics could contend that her email-policies have done.
Damaged, how? I made the long-term case a week ago, after Comey’s reckless announcement about the Anthony Weiner emails. The shorter-term case is evident right now: No one can ever know how the 2016 election would have turned out—in ultimate victor, in margin and “mandate,” in the way specific states go, in down-ballot and Congressional effects—had it not been for Comey’s decision to put himself in the middle of charge and counter-charge.
We can’t ever know, because some 40 million people have already voted. We can’t ever know, because his latest last-minute announcement comes too late to be fully digested by the time everyone else votes on election day.
I have no reason to believe that Director Comey was operating out of base motives. He probably thought he was doing the right thing for the right reasons. But he was mistaken, and the results were damaging—to the country, to the political process, to the FBI and the Department of Justice, and to Comey himself.
In the hyper-litigious current political realm, the usual next step would be hearings and investigations—hearings like those on the deaths at Benghazi, investigations like the endless ones on email. American public life at the moment is all too hearings-bound and criminalization-crazy. Hearings or investigations into whatever has happened at the FBI would not be worth it for anyone.
So what, instead?
Hillary Clinton, if she wins, should not fire Director Comey. If she cares about the norms of governing, as she should and presumably does, she would realize that this would inescapably look like revenge and a purge.
For similar reasons, Barack Obama, who appointed Comey to this job in the first place, should not fire him. FBI directors are given 10-year terms precisely to insulate them from politics. Obama should observe the letter of that apolitical norm, even if Comey himself has not.
But as soon as the election is over, Obama should make clear, bully-pulpit style, what Comey has done wrong, and why Comey has tarnished his bureau’s reputation, lost Obama’s trust, and forfeited the public’s deference to his judgment.
And then, sometime soon, Comey should resign. He shouldn’t be fired, but if he cares about his institution and its values, he should recognize that his continued presence is an unavoidable source of continued harm.
Plus, he is sure to get a lucrative follow-on job.
We’ve had enough hearings and investigations. But this was a big and damaging mistake.
No one should fire Director Comey, because a firing would damage governing norms. But in defense of those norms, Director Comey should resign.
Ten days ago I argued that FBI Director James Comey had changed the dynamics of the 2016 election in an irreversible way, with his announcement of a new trove of potentially “relevant” emails on Anthony Weiner’s computers. After Comey’s “oh, never mind” followup yesterday, less than 48 hours before election day, I argued that his series of mis-judgments about the FBI’s proper role in electoral politics, and his apparent lack of control over the agency, meant that someone else should take his place. But it would be better all around, according to me, if Comey resigned sometime soon after the election, instead of forcing either the president who appointed him (Obama) or the next president in line (presumably Clinton) to fire him.
Readers disagree—most of them because they think Comey deserves harsher treatment, but some for the opposite reason. Here we go:
There is a silver lining. A reader in the tech industry says that the whole episode might have one positive result:
It should put to rest the storyline that Clinton obstructed justice by destroying damaging emails. This previously unknown cache of unscreened email yielded no evidence of criminality, thus undermining the argument that Clinton’s emails were sanitized.
‘Egregious error.’ From a lawyer on the East Coast:
I disagree with your conclusion that Clinton, if she wins, should not fire Comey (or demand his resignation, which amounts to the same thing). Yes, to some people, particularly the Trump supporters, this might look like revenge. And certainly, GOP elected officials will take the opportunity to make the same claim. But those people are incorrigible, and trying to appease them or seek their approval is a no-win situation.
The fact is that pretty much everyone, including Republicans, agree that Comey made an egregious error in judgment. Can you think of any other post-Hoover FBI Director who has made such a significant public mistake? But for the twisted political environment we’re in, that alone should be grounds for firing. Assuming that Comey stumbled innocently with his original letter a week and a half ago, he should, within 48 hours, have issued a clarification intended to remove any unintended implications. That he waited in silence until now compounded his error.
In addition, it appears to be that Comey has, as a number of commentators put it, lost control of his agency. Again, this should be grounds for termination, and Clinton should bring in a new director to clean house and impose some real discipline on the agency. That some agents are intervening in the political process by leaking information is inexcusable.
I note that, when first elected, Obama chose not to pursue criminal actions against any members of the Bush Administration, even though there likely were sufficient grounds to do so. The reason was that Obama feared that the partisan reaction to prosecuting would have poisoned the well and eliminated any chance of the GOP working with him on his legislative agenda. Of course, as we now know, the GOP refused to cooperate anyway. (In addition, Obama chose not to seek indictments because he was loathe to create the apparent precedent of prosecuting the prior administration. IN this regard, he showed prudent, long-range thinking.)
Investigations would be good, not bad. Another reader wanting a tougher line:
Respectfully, I think you’re way off base here. First, you summarily conclude that “hearings or investigations into whatever has happened at the FBI would not be worth it for anyone.”
The problem here is that an investigation into whatever happened at the FBI is not simply a matter of punishing the director for his error/malfeasance, but actually investigating a disturbing series of events at the nation’s national largest law enforcement agency. It wasn’t just Comey. Credible reports indicate that (1) Comey acted in part because he knew an anti-Clinton faction at the FBI would leak it first; and (2) that there is a rogue faction at the FBI that was pushing against FBI and DOJ orders to investigate a public candidate for office and to leak damaging information and innuendo at a critical time in the election season. At the very least, the director is unable to control his bureau. What happened absolutely needs to be investigated, and whatever bad actors responsible need to be rooted out. If there is a larger cultural problem at the FBI, that needs to be exposed and fixed.
Otherwise, this will continue. And not just in elections. What if this faction decides to investigate members of the Clinton administration, and leak personal information to the press? How can President Clinton or her AG trust the FBI, if they suspect the FBI will leak critical information? Just because Republicans have abused their investigative powers does not mean there isn’t a real value to them.
Second, you recognize that Comey cannot continue at the FBI, but you argue that neither Clinton nor Obama should fire him, because that would appear too political, and the FBI director’s 10-year term is supposed to insulate the FBI from political pressure.
Well, that ship sailed. Maybe the 10-year term was supposed to insulate Comey from political pressure, but it clearly did not. The president also possesses the authority to fire the director, presumably in situations where politics be damned, the director cannot continue in his job. This is just one situation, as you yourself recognize.
Third, if firing Comey would be too political, how is it any better for Obama to publicly castigate him and pressure him to resign?
Fourth, you’re judging the Democrats by a double standard. Comey can interfere in a general election in violation of both agency policy and arguably a statute (the Hatch Act), but he cannot be punished by the president, even when a statute specifically authorizes the president to fire him? If the president fires him, it is Comey who made the U.S. look like a banana republic, not the president.
‘A kind of coup.’ A reader who identifies himself as a disabled Vietnam veteran sends a copy of his open letter to the president:
In my view, a Special Prosecutor should be created to investigate the FBI.
It would appear that an FBI in-house group of Republican political operatives staged a kind of coup and created a serious political crisis on the eve of the 2016 election. They did it deliberately and with the clear intent of affecting the election. Whether Director Comey knew about it or not is irrelevant (I suspect he did). The constitutional implications of this act are fundamental to the sanctity of our government. Nothing less.
Not since Gore/Bush in 2000 has a presidential election been so blatantly tampered with. It remains to be seen how the election will come out, but there is no doubt that the so-called “FBI letter” put a serious dent in Clinton’s sizable lead. According to Nate Silver (who I consider the most reliable source), her lead dropped from roughly 10 points to roughly 4 points. The actions of the FBI, including Comey, had a clear effect. [JF note: the Silver/538 model, which rated Trump’s chances lower than some other sources during the primaries, has consistently rated them higher than most others during the general election campaign. When the results are all in, the polling experts can figure out which approach worked out best in this extraordinary year.]
This is a gravely serious threat the security of the U. S. government and should be seen as such. We all have been pointed to the Russians, when all along the real tampering has come, once again, from our own Republican Party. Please take swift and strong action to expose this national security threat.
On the other hand. Another reader with a military background says that Comey took a difficult but unavoidable step:
I live in Maryland and am strongly supporting Clinton. However, I have friends and family who are adamant Trump supporters and who, with justification, believe the Clintons are not forthcoming about their dubious behavior, an issue that is hard to refute!
They believe the system is rigged. Had Comey not come out with his announcements prior to the election and had there been evidence of Clinton misconduct, what would have the reaction? Total belief on the part of Trump and his base that the system had been rigged—that the FBI held evidence back that would have elected Trump—confirming exactly what Trump had been saying!
Comey inoculated the country from that disaster! And it would have been a disaster!
Do you disagree that had Comey withheld the fact that he had more emails and it turned out that they contained inappropriate behavior by Secretary Clinton, that would have sparked widespread outrage, and right so! The fairness and legitimacy of the election would be challenged by the 48 percent of Americans who were Trump voters .
Frankly, I do not believe that the Washington media has little, if any, understanding of the Trump supporters! Frankly, I am stunned by them, I disagree strongly with them, but they are not stupid; they are concerned about the country. I had hope that your flight across the country would have provided some insight to the divisions of the country and the unfortunate passion with which those divisions are held.
To address this central part of the final reader’s argument: “The fairness and legitimacy of the election would be challenged by the 48 percent of Americans who were Trump voters.” First, he’s not going to get close to 48 percent of the vote. Even if he did, what I’ve seen convinces me that most or all of his real base would believe there was “an email problem” regardless of anything Director Comey ever said.
The email “scandal” is a very peculiar one. Hillary Clinton made a significant mistake in setting up the system to begin with, and for being so grudging about recognizing that. But as far as I can tell, it’s a mistake whose main victim is herself. I’m not aware of anyone demonstrating or even claiming specific harm to the national interest because of her email practices. Yet people who chant “lock her up” usually start with this on the bill of particulars.
Clinton should “go high” by keeping Comey. Here’s another reader with a somewhat sympathetic view of the FBI director (previous readers along those lines here):
Yes, Comey should resign, but I’m not sure that his resignation should be accepted. His sin—being obsessed with his reputation—is one of which the Founders (George Washington above all), not to mention all modern politicians, have been guilty. And many if not most of them typically go about tending to their reputations in far less salubrious ways than he has.
Justin Dillon is right: The original decision and announcement not to prosecute Clinton should have been made by AG Lynch and her lieutenants. That way anyone who believed that a Democratic AG had made a partisan decision to decline to prosecute her party’s nominee could have expressed their displeasure at the ballot box in November. We don’t know whether Comey tried to pass the buck to Lynch (as he should have), but if he did, it seems likely that such an attempt would have been rejected.
Instead, the FBI—and Comey personally, with his reputation for probity—were used as a kind of heat shield, like the protective layer which, with one tragic exception, kept the space shuttle astronauts safe during their re-entry into the atmosphere. Then the late-breaking emergence of the Wiener emails put Comey on an even nastier spot, especially with the “fifth column” of troglodytes in the Bureau that Wayne Barrett has described (thank you very much for that link) itching to inflict far greater damage on his reputation (a cover-up!) by leaking their preferred version of the story.
If Clinton and the country manage to survive Comey’s horribly clumsy attempt to salvage what remained of his reputation, refusing to accept his resignation would give her and her party a very visible opportunity to “go high.” She and they would undoubtedly be accused of rewarding Comey for his last-minute announcement re-exonerating her. However, these are career politicians and partisan operatives, and being criticized unfairly is a baked-in part of the gig that they signed up for.
Fix the (metaphorical) bayonets. From a reader who starts out agreeing with me that no one should fire Comey:
I think I agree with you on this. From a purely cerebral analysis, I’m sure I do. But all this norm smashing—as we’ve all been discussing for months—isn’t going to end just because Trump loses. Indeed, the Republican elected officials are going to be driven by a political constituency driven to madness to act in an increasingly undemocratic fashion during the Clinton II Presidency.
So, as you say, the Democrats have two choices. They can resist the (reasonable) impulse to act in kind, playing the adult in the room while the Republican burn down the house around them. Or they can—at least selectively—fight fire with fire and step outside the previously accepted norms of behavior in order to thwart at least some of the craziest Republican actions.
We already know we’ll be facing problems with appointments (not just judicial, don’t kid yourself), appropriations legislation, and perhaps most ominous of all, a renewed debt ceiling fight led by the most nihilistic politicians in recent memory.
I’m not sure which course I favor. I’d like to at least be proud of our actions, but there’s no doubt that American small-d democracy is in peril, and maybe it’s time to fix bayonets ...
I know from context that he means the last line metaphorically.
A for-the-record personal-preference note on election eve.
Yes for Aguilar. If I lived in my original hometown of Redlands, California, tomorrow I would vote to give the city’s former mayor, Pete Aguilar, a second term as Representative from California’s 31st Congressional district. His district includes San Bernardino, site of the horrific massacre nearly a year ago, and he has done a good job both in the immediate aftermath of the killings and in addressing the city’s deeper, longer-term economic challenges. He’s part of the next generation of practical-minded leadership for the state.
Yes on Measure L. If I lived a few miles west of Redlands, across the city line in San Bernardino itself, I would vote in favor of Measure L. This is a long-overdue proposal to revamp the city’s unusual and dysfunctional governing charter, which itself has been an important reason the city has been officially bankrupt for four-plus years. I wrote about the bankruptcy, and the charter’s role in it, last year here and here. Ryan Hagen of the San Bernardino Sun, who has chronicled the city’s recent ups and downs, did an explainer on Measure L and how it would change the charter here. The Sun’s editorial board formally endorsed Measure L last month. Some previous charter-reform efforts failed. A lot depends on the city’s ability to pass this one. Yes on L!
Yes on Measure M. If I happened to be living instead in California’s other best-known recently-bankrupted city, Stockton, I would vote in favor of Measure M. (Stockton formally entered bankruptcy in 2012 and left it last year.) I’ll plan to say more about Stockton tomorrow, but its story has much in common with San Bernardino’s. Each is physically close to a rich and glittery part of California—San Bernardino and its Inland Empire are an hour’s drive away from Los Angeles, Stockton is due east from the tech riches of the Bay Area—but economically and culturally they are far removed. Stockton’s arc in the past century also resembles, on a smaller scale, Detroit’s: industrial and commercial wealth, and the civic benefits that came from it, and then a long decline. The story of its downtown resembles Fresno’s, which we’ve written about here.
Measure M, whose official description you can read here, would approve a very small sales tax, one-quarter of one percent, to develop libraries and recreation facilities for a city that badly lacks them. The measure passed the city council with a 7-0 vote but now requires a two-thirds supermajority approval to go into effect. Here’s more from the Yes on M group, and a wonderful profile from the Stockton Record about one of the people behind it, a local dentist name Mas’ood Cajee. The story about him is titled, “Man passionate about using books to rebuild Stockton.” More to come about the larger lessons from this kind of investment.
No on Prop 53. In my profile of Jerry Brown three years ago, I said that his lifetime’s immersion in California politics had equipped him, in his return stint as governor, to make the big long-term investments that had been so important to the state’s past growth. One of California’s challenges is its arcane “direct democracy” system of initiatives and referendums, which were enacted in a reform spirit more than a century ago but in practice turn out mainly to favor well-financed interests and pressure groups. One well-financed activist, a rich farmer from the Stockton area, has put millions into financing a proposition that would add another layer of gridlock and impediment to big statewide projects. Most newspapers in the state have editorialized harshly against it, e.g. Sac Bee, SF Chronicle, SJ Mercury News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, East Bay Times, and the Monterey Herald. Here is a video from Brown himself. As the governor puts it in that clip, “It may sound OK, but it’s bad for California.” If I lived anyplace in California, I would vote No on 53.
Yes for Robert White. If I lived and voted in D.C., which in fact I do, I would (and will) vote for Robert White for an at-large seat on the City Council. As I mentioned back in June, his upset victory in the Democratic primary over incumbent Vincent Orange was a positive step for the city. And while I’m at it, also Yes for Mary Lord for the at-large seat on the D.C. school board. (And, very locally, Yes for Chuck Elkins for the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.)
Yes on D.C. Statehood. The 99%+ of the U.S. population that lives in the 50 states doesn’t care. But it’s just not fair that those who live in D.C. pay the same income taxes as everyone else, but have no representation in Congress, and no state-style sovereignty over local decisions. How would the Utah or New York legislatures like it, if some Congressman from another part of the country got to double-check laws that they passed? We don’t like it either. It’s a symbolic vote, but: C’mon.
Today is finally Election Day, mercifully. Our tireless politics team is live-blogging events throughout the day and into the night. Over the past several weeks, scores and scores of your emails have poured in, covering a wide array of campaign topics, so here’s one final roundup of your smart opinions and analyses as the polls open this morning. (They’re already closed in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, the first vote in the nation, and in that tiny hamlet Clinton beat Trump in a landslide, 4-2—a harbinger, we hope.)
Most recently we had a roundup of reader reaction to the Comey aftermath, and a new reader makes an interesting point here:
FBI agents ran to the nearest reporter to leak about potentially damaging material about Clinton. IRS employees, some of whom certainly had access to and knowledge of Trump’s tax returns, never said a word. Maybe they’re all secret Trump supporters, or maybe IRS employees demonstrated more integrity than our nation’s supposed best and brightest law enforcement agents.
Another reader similarly wonders:
Why is there no MSM coverage of Trump having to face Judge Curiel on November 28 over fraud and racketeering charges for Trump University? [Though it’s important to note they’re civil suits.] If this were about Clinton, it would have been a shark fest descending on her.
“Latino Americans have long had higher-than-average rates of service and sacrifice in the U.S. military. In 2016, they may be defending American freedoms in another way.”
Amen! I hope Nevada early voting is truly a bellwether for a landslide of revulsion toward Trump. Assuming Wednesday brings a reason to celebrate with a burst of adrenaline from a near-death experience, I hope we have the maturity to reflect on the two big questions from this horrible experience:
1. What is wrong with our political system that we nominated two such untrustworthy candidates?
2. How do we protect America from current and future versions of Trumpism?
David Frum’s argument that we can’t afford to tear down the very institutions that protect America from fascism and despotism is worth emphasizing in all the post-election analysis. As Bill Maher rightly pointed out on Friday:
1) Democrats must share the blame for crying wolf by grossly exaggerating their descriptions of Bush, McCain, and Romney, so when a truly horrific candidate emerged, it sounded like typical Democratic bluster, and
2) The Mormons got it right early-on, saw Trump for who he is, and took a stand. They showed courage to speak the truth when GOP politicians showed self-serving cowardice and hypocrisy by putting their self-interest ahead of America’s interest.
Regarding the Mormons’ principled stand, here’s the rest of Bill Maher’s rant against Evangelicals supporting Trump despite his deeply un-Christian character (a topic previously tackled by readers):
For more on Trump’s character, a reader in San Diego writes:
Thank you for fodder for excellent conversations! I have a theory about Donald Trump that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else, and it’s about the fact that, before the election campaign, he’d only seen the highly scripted and edited versions of himself on TV. Maybe he doesn’t recognize himself because he’d never seen himself portrayed as he really is.
For a big dose of scripted Trump, check out the “best firings” compilation from The Apprentice seen below. (One of Trump’s early quotes is ominously ironic: “The problem is that Bradford made an impulsive decision—a stupid, impulsive decision. Frankly, if you were running a company and made that kind of a decision, you destroy that company, instantaneously.”)
All through his life as a celebrity, Trump’s appearances have been either scripted or edited to show him in the best light—or at least a humorous light. His anger was his tool, but it was always shown as a strength of character, not as a flaw. Then, during the campaign, Trump expected to be shown in the same manner and was dismayed to see his true self. He really doesn’t recognize himself. To him, The Media have edited all of his appearances to make him look bad on purpose. That’s the only reason I can come up with to explain his constant insistence that he didn’t “say/do/act like that.”
Trump’s supporters have fallen for a man who is only as real as a storybook. Reality TV is built upon layers and layers of pretense: scripted storylines, production staff who stir the pot in order to create tension, sequences of events are edited for a better arc, and so on. The viewers know this, but still they are certain that a person’s “true” character is being revealed.
It’s like looking at Photoshopped pictures of fashion models; you know it’s not a true representation of the person, but you still expect the person to look like the picture. Then, when you see him/her at the airport, you’re surprised he’s/she’s not as gorgeous.
Another reader on the era of reality TV:
Decades ago I pursued a journalism degree, at the University of Montana J-school, followed by a master’s in print journalism in Stanford’s communication department. Throughout I was drilled in the catechism of our ancient craft. I learned that the three purposes of journalism are to inform, to persuade and to entertain—in that order. A couple of my most prescient professors issued dire warnings that we must protect our trade against the tendency toward frivolity, or entertainment.
Today, I think we have arrived at a point where, at best, these go in reverse order, or at worst we are almost entirely in the entertainment realm. It began, perhaps, with choosing an actor as our president. It ends up with a reality television star as candidate: a person only capable of entertainment, with a dash of persuasion, but zero information. The disturbing part is how readily the public was brought along. I realize myriad factors are at play, but how sad that we have an election that was “informed” almost completely by entertainment.
Back to the real world of information, here’s a thorough debunking of Trump’s talking points on the stump—“25 outright lies in a single speech”:
One of Trump’s greatest rhetorical strengths is interrupting people with pithy and withering insults. That may have worked against “low-energy Jeb” and “Little Marco” and others in the primaries, but it probably didn’t work in the one-on-one debates of the general election, as reader Todd argues:
I might be too late getting to this, but I think an under-discussed tactic of Clinton’s was that she studiously ignored Trump’s interjections during the debates. My recollection is that in the GOP debates, the other candidates generally allowed Trump to stop their train of thought as they responded to his snipes. Clinton didn’t do this. She just kept pushing on, saying what she wanted to say and ignoring Trump. I feel that this decision was vitally important, keeping her on long-form answers where she has the advantage on Trump and not getting bogged down in trading barbs, which is Trump’s territory.
Over the course of the presidential debates, Trump repeatedly said that he’s “smart” for exploiting tax loopholes and that he’s “entitled [to do so] because of the laws.”
Much has been written about this in a vaguely indignant way that doesn’t really name the core offense, and I think the problem is that we’re all partially persuaded by this idea that it’s smart to behave in a way that makes money. But there really is a moral failure at play in this dynamic. Let’s look at a comparable example: a middle-class family that chooses to eat all of their meals at a local homeless shelter.
There’s no law prohibiting such behavior, and for a family of four this would be a “smart” way to save money. But the overwhelming majority of people would, I think, be horrified by such an idea and far too humiliated and embarrassed to do such a thing. It’s not clear to me, though, that Trump would respond this way. As it stands, he has effectively argued that this middle class family is “entitled” to eat at the homeless shelter because the law doesn’t explicitly prohibit it.
The vast majority of your emails have been critical of Trump rather than Clinton, but here’s a pretty standard critique of Clinton, from a reader in Kansas:
I disagree with Fallows that Hillary Clinton’s “experience” as U.S. senator and secretary of state was meaningful. I tune in to C-Span often. I read the NYT, The New Yorker, NY Review of Books, Slate and Salon; I listen to NPR almost as a religious devotion. All of these outlets (C-Span is neutral of course) have been cheerleading for Clinton for years. But I can’t recall any of them actually enumerating her accomplishments as Senator or SoS, identifying any “value added” attributable to her while she held those positions. What controversial positions did she stake out and take the lead on in the Senate? Was her time in the Senate any more impressive than other Democrats who shared her basic policy views like, say, Al Franken? How, precisely how, did she distinguish herself?
To me, she was just biding her time, schmoozingly building her resume for the single goal she has targeted since college: POTUS. I think the same holds for her tenure at SoS. What—specifically what—value did she add to policy-making on such areas as our approach in Libya (no, not Benghazi), Syria, Ukraine, the European refugee tragedy, to name a few? It’s one thing to prefer her clearly over Trump—no contest, really—but to rhapsodize her “experience” as senator and SoS? I just can’t see the empress’s clothes.
For a much longer and thorough series of criticisms of Clinton, and the Clintons more generally, check out the “Lesser Evil” episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, featuring my old Atlantic and Dish colleague, Andrew Sullivan:
A reader, Lee, recommended that episode after seeing this curated list from my boss Matt Thompson. Lee was “hooked from beginning to end”:
The “Lesser Evil” episode is a relentless takedown of both candidates—in the interest of building the case that voting for Hillary is the only viable option. Frankly, I had stopped thinking so critically of Hillary because Trump is so dangerous. While I still can’t agree with the “Hillary is evil” argument, the extended criticism of her in the first half of the episode was both necessary and reasonably thoughtful. (It also has some crossover appeal; I can imagine Limbaugh-inclined relatives listening and reconsidering Trump, or at least their NeverHillary stance.) And then that first half was totally overshadowed by their articulation of the incredible threat Trump and his rhetoric pose to so many aspects of Western democracy, leaving Hillary as the only sane choice.
This next reader is opting out of that choice:
I see nothing positive in either candidate. Trump is unfit by temperament. Clinton is unfit by ideology. It’s like having to choose between a train engineer with no experience and an experienced engineer who will take you to a place you don’t want to go. One might get you in a train wreck; the other surely will take you where you don’t want to go.
I’m not getting on the train. I am not casting a vote for president for the first time in 50 years. Since I’m in California, my non-vote will not matter. But I will be able to look myself in the mirror and say that I followed my conscience.
Third-party voters in the U.S. seem confused about a two-party system. In a two-party system, factions coalesce into two parties before the election. In a parliamentary system, factions coalesce into two parties after the election.
Which system is better? I have no idea. However, voting third party in a two-party system makes no sense except to satisfy the pique of the third-party voter, a kind of narcissism and not at all honorable. The problem for third-party voters is not Clinton or Trump, it is the system itself.
This next reader would agree:
This election isn’t about Clinton, it isn’t about Trump, and it sure isn’t about your New York reader’s feelings, sentiments, ideas, or sense of self. You either get democracy, or you get not democracy.
One of only two people will be president-elect on Wednesday morning: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. There is effectively no other option for voting, no matter who else is running. You can either help Trump win, or you can help Clinton win. You don’t get any other choice.
This morning, I was conceding to the Bernie die-hards (in absentia, since I can’t stand to talk to any of them at this point) who won’t vote for Clinton, that I suspect Sanders would be in a better position against Trump at this point. We certainly wouldn’t have to put up with Comey.
But it simply doesn’t matter, because it’s no longer an option.
This is the problem with pseudo-intellectualism—or bullshit, in simple language. People don’t know when to stop. They always think there’s a but, when there’s only a binary.
I contend that the way forward is to convince Trump to start the “T” Party and take his core followers with him (35% of the GOP), allowing the party to rebrand itself in a more contemporary way that focuses on small government, low taxes, state’s rights, and a strong military. If they leave behind their xenophobic, so-called “values” issues, they could appeal to the 40% of Americans who are registered Independent.
Why would Trump start the 3rd party? Because he won’t want to leave the national stage. The adoration and “many people who say” he is great would persuade him he couldn’t lose. Because he is mad at Republicans who backstabbed him. Because he doesn’t do “math.” Because nothing would appeal to his ego more than having a party that was all about him ... or should I call it a cult?
One other hand, this reader doubts that Trump will be able to mount any political comeback if he loses today:
All he wants to do is to win so much that he will get sick of winning, but you can't do that from the political sidelines, especially after having lost to a woman. When his base finds out that he was lying all along about “the wall,” and that he has no real power now, they are not going to start a revolution on their own without a leader. And they are not going to start a revolution with a leader who himself lost their cause. It is going to end with a whimper and not a bang.
The only permanent threat to democracy will be if the Democrats don’t realize that they got off easy, and if the Republicans don’t think it wasn’t their fault. Unless the Left can figure out how to appeal to the white working class, the whole thing will just happen again next time. The Republicans, embarrassed at being a permanent minority party, will try to whip up their base again, and the Democrats will represent “the system” that the base is angry at.
Our hope with the Time Capsule series was to create a comprehensive collection of Trump’s most egregious acts of unprecedented, norm-shattering behavior for members of the Republican mainstream to reflect upon and avoid in the future. A long-time reader, Jack, appreciates Jim’s efforts:
As a retired USAF veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, I would like to offer my kudos to James Fallows for his admirable contributions. His insight, opinion based on fact, and the manner with which he delivered them is, without a doubt, a credit to your publication.
And another reader, Steven, wants to see Fallows continue the Notes series even if Trump is soundly defeated today:
Thank you to James Fallows for his Notes. His blogging has served as a form of lifeline as I was starting to wonder if I was alone in my thinking. Fortunately, I realize that is not the case. Unfortunately, I also realize that even after the election is over, we have not heard the last of Trump or his followers. More importantly, I fear we have not heard the last from his pretend followers more interested in achieving their life long goal of minority rule, namely the cynical GOP leadership who put power (disguised as party) over country.
The easiest path for them to follow is to continue with their damaging obstructionism now targeted against Clinton. This one issue, combined with continued gerrymandering and voter suppression, is the ONLY thing the disparate factions of the GOP can agree on and is the only glue that seems to hold them together. They appear ready, willing, and able to whip that mule to victory or total defeat.
Please consider continuing your Notes series after the election, as I suspect we will continue to see things we have never seen before as our democratic institutions continue to be attacked. You may also consider rebranding it using a different title. Either way, Fallows’s brave voice of clarity and reason will be needed to serve and defend the Republic.
Most of what I think about last night’s results I discussed in a long talk early this morning with Terry Gross, which will be on the Fresh Air this afternoon. The embed for our discussion just went live and you can listen below.
More in this space when I can manage.
An ongoing theme here in recent years has been the contrast between increasingly paralyzed and bitter national-level politics, and a positive-minded and forward-looking sense of practicality at the community level. In that silver-lining spirit, I am happy to report that all of the local initiatives and candidates I mentioned two days ago came to what I consider the right result:
The voters of California rejected Proposition 53, which would have made it much harder for the state to undertake big, long-term investments.
The voters of Stockton approved Measure M, a small sales-tax increased devoted to the city’s libraries and recreation centers. The measure needed a two-thirds majority for approval, and it got nearly 75 percent.
The voters of San Bernardino approved Measure L, which will reform the flawed city charter that in itself is a source of the city’s problems. The measure required only a majority vote, and was getting more than 60 percent.
The voters of San Bernardino, Redlands, and environs comfortably re-elected former Redlands mayor Pete Aguilar to a second term in the U.S. House.
The voters of the District of Columbia comfortably elected Robert White (and David Grosso) to at-large seats on the City Council, and approved the statehood referendum by 86 percent to 14 percent.
We’ll take progress where we can find it.
On the larger prospect, after the jump a thought for the day from W.B. Yeats.
Apropos for today, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” by William Butler Yeats, 102 years ago. For the reminder about this poem I thank a Republican friend who took an early and honorable stand against Donald Trump.
Thank you to readers for the hundreds of messages that have been pouring in daily. In most of the time since the election, I have been in transit for a long-scheduled set of American-innovation events in the mountain west, Cheyenne and Laramie in specific; and trying to write a completely unscheduled article for the magazine; and absorbing the psychological and intellectual effects of what our country has just done to itself. I had not expected that I would ever again feel as paralyzed, withdrawn, and downcast as I did after my father died eight yearsago. But that expectation was a failure of tragic imagination on my part. I was wrong.
The main thoughts I’ve made public since the election were immediately afterwards, early Wednesday morning on not much sleep, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. You can listen to it here. I’ve also just done a talk with Kai Ryssdal for Marketplace, probably for tomorrow’s show.
I hope you will read carefully this note from Joseph Britt. I sent Mr. Britt an email saying that I would like to quote from his message, and that I assumed he would prefer—as is our default practice—that I not use his real name. His reply wins my great respect:
It’s kind of you to make that suggestion. Not an easy call in these times.
But where is it written life should be easy? Use my name. Say, “Joseph Britt in Wisconsin, who has worked on campaigns and in government for Republican politicians...”
So here is Joseph Britt in Wisconsin, who has worked on campaigns and in government for Republican politicians. I leave in one of his setup points about me, because it provides context.
You mentioned on Twitter not wanting to continue the “Time Capsule” series, which is fine. TheAtlantic, however, should pick it up, using a team of writers of which you could be one if you chose. America is heading into uncharted territory as I write this, both as a nation and in our relations with the wider world. The path we walk should be documented in a systematic way.
I wanted to say something about the election results that may be obvious, perhaps too obvious to be much remarked upon.
In TheAtlantic and other publications, I have read in recent days long essays about people who supported Donald Trump, who had previously voted for Barack Obama or hadn’t voted at all, who were nostalgic for the imagined world of their parents’ generation, or who for whatever reason had so little hope for the future they were willing to trust in the remarkably general promises of a man who made his fortune putting up hotels and golf courses.
Journalists struggling to understand Trump’s support have been keen to describe—or have these people describe themselves—their feelings, in considerable detail.
All well and good. Rural white voters and voters at a loss in the face of economic and social change are certainly an important story, because of their critical marginal influence in electorally significant states. They may have pushed Trump over the top, but they are not the most important reason he seems about to become President.
Alone among systems of government, democracy imposes duties on the ruled as well as the rulers. It doesn’t work if those duties are shirked by too many people. People of means—coincidentally the traditional core of the Republican Party—have a special interest in maintaining standards of ethics and probity in candidates for national office, for without lawful and universally accepted authority no property is safe.
The Republican Party supported a war hero and veteran legislator for President in 2008. It backed a legitimate businessman and successful governor in 2012. This year, it fell in behind Trump. About as many Republicans voted for Trump as for Romney four years earlier. The great majority of these were not distressed working-class voters. They weren’t threatened by minorities or by globalization. They were—are— people who have lived easy lives, never wanting for anything save the most garish accoutrements of great wealth.
They knew Donald Trump was ignorant and dishonest, and it didn’t matter to them. They knew he was a sex predator who fathered children by various women, and it didn’t matter. Cheating on his taxes, cheating on his wives, consumer fraud, the bogus charity, the sponsorship of the Russian intelligence services, the anti-Semitic associates, cheating contractors who had done work for him, the picking on individuals before massive rallies, the insufferable racism, the continual running down of America—none of that mattered.
No, the only thing that mattered to Republicans of means once Trump was nominated by the Republican Party was that he had been nominated by the Republican Party. Loyalty to party took precedence over loyalty to American democracy, its mission, and traditions. What counted—all that counted—was that Trump had been chosen to lead Our Team.
What a pathetic thing is decadence. Millions of Republicans as comfortable and secure as any people who have ever lived, who owe everything to the historic miracle that is the United States, chose to go along with a presidential candidacy shot through with moral degeneracy and contempt for the public good. They had other choices in the primaries; they were warned by their own former leaders what Trump represented. They voted for him anyway, hoping to give their team a win in the game, the shallow entertainment that is all they think of politics.
They have put this Republic that has been the light of the world for 240 years in danger. They have put freedom in danger. Years of easy prosperity and soft living have taught them that America could be taken for granted. Lincoln, Roosevelt, Stimson, Eisenhower, Reagan might just as well be random groups of letters to these people, stifled by material wealth and physical sensation.
They will have second thoughts, these comfortable Republicans of means. They will flake off from Trump long before the sad nostalgists and struggling rural voters who actually believe his promises of magic. They will lower his approval ratings. But they made him President, and gave him a Congress full of cyphers, slackwits, and doddering old men to work with. What a price our country and the world will pay, and for how long they will pay it, because those Americans most richly blessed failed so completely in their duty as citizens.
“Democracy doesn’t work if its duties are shirked by too many people.”
As a study of oratorical styles, this is genuinely worth watching, even if you don't understand a word of Italian. Spend even 30 or 40 seconds and you will see what I mean. Or for a highlight skip to the passage from 0:50 to 1:50.
The speaker’s enunciation is so emphatic and precise, his wording so blunt and simple, and his argument so straight-ahead that even I, who last coped with Italian many years ago, can follow just what he is telling us. Oversimplified, the message is: make Italy great again! (And specifically its navy.) But again the real message has nothing to do with a particular language. It involves personal carriage, facial expression, stance of dominance, and interaction with crowd. I am sorry I had not taken time to watch this before. (Thanks to John Kenney for the lead.)
In the time since the election, I have been otherwise-engaged about 20 hours a day: writing an unexpected article for the next issue; discussing my article in the current issue, about China, on various shows (including Brian Lehrer here, Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal here, and Charlie Rose here); traveling for Atlantic and other events about the next stage of American re-invention (e.g., here and here and here); and reflecting, though not sleeping.
I see that several thousand emails have arrived in that time. With this latest article done and with press junkets on pause for the moment, I’ll start sharing some of the reaction that has come in, plus positive news from familiar places like Erie, Sioux Falls, San Bernardino, and Fresno. All this in a buildup to what I expect will be a necessary declaration of Email Bankruptcy at the end of the year and a clean start on many fronts.
From the inbox, an engineer who is directly involved in the technology for tabulating votes in a number of states sends this report on the historically unusual gap between Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote lead and Donald Trump’s electoral college margin. (Andrew McGill has been covering this issue for us since the election.) The engineer wrote over the weekend with this summary:
It looks as if Hillary Clinton will top the popular-vote margin in percentage points of President Carter in 1976, also JFK in 1960, three elections in the 1880s and James Knox Polk in 1844. And I should include the 2000 election as well.
That is, he said, a total of seven people will have taken the presidency with a winning margin that is smaller, as a proportion of the popular vote, than Hillary Clinton will probably end up having over Donald Trump, in defeat.
Now, the background, in a note from this same reader a few days earlier:
I work in the election industry—on the counting side, not the political side. When I went to sleep on election night, Trump’s lead was a million votes and climbing. This was not my preferred outcome, but I accepted the selection of the people—only it wasn’t, as it turns out.
My calculation today gives Clinton a 2.5 million vote margin when everything is counted. (Vote-by-mail states count slowly—more paper handling for mail-ins. California has three million uncounted ballots, one million in LA County (3 to 1 for Clinton) and another half-million in San Diego County (3 to 2 for Clinton).) She may also pick up more votes in other vote-by-mail states out west—think Oregon, Washington, Colorado.
The narrative on election night was all how Clinton turned victory to defeat, her campaign overconfident, her voters staying home, and her herself unable to best perhaps the least capable candidate ever nominated by a major party.
The numbers in Florida and California just do not support that evaluation. In both places, turnout was up over 8 percent. She pulled a 930K vote lead in counties covering 58 percent of the state’s voters, counties where Obama ran up a 770K margin that enabled him to win a 70K victory in 2012. Her lead failed because Trump himself ran up a million vote margin in the remaining rural counties, beating Romney’s numbers by 350K. Hilary lost Florida, but she and Trump engaged the voters.
In California, she will nearly double Trump's tally, and out-poll Obama (the 2008 and 2012 version) by about three percentage points. She will receive nine million plus votes in California. These are the votes pushing her national total two million and more votes past that of the President-elect.
She will not be inaugurated two months hence, not in virtue of a pitiful campaign. She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes not very good, but she received support from enough of the republic to win the office in any universe not governed by an 18th century compromise with the slave-owning aristocrats of the Carolinas and Virginia.
She has 2.5 million more votes than the person who will be inaugurated. That is not a close margin.
This is what a democratic crisis looks like.
We all know that the electoral college is the established system for choosing presidents. (Though the National Popular Vote compact is a way better idea for a modern nation—and is what we would expect and recommend for any other nation.) We all know that if there were no electoral college, the campaign dynamics would have been different and the popular vote total might have been different too. We know as well that this is different from the 2000 election, in which a change in the outcome in even one state would have changed the electoral college result, in favor of the popular vote winner, Al Gore. The dynamics now are different.
But as the reader says, this is quite a disproportion. On the one hand, we have a result swung by a tens of thousands of votes in three crucial states. On the other hand, we have enormous impending changes in international and domestic policy. Americans would not regard the result as normal or proportional if they observed it anywhere else.
A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies. Is there any way for democratic institutions to cope? This is our topic in the post-Thanksgiving week.
Being back in China in the U.S.-election aftermath naturally leads to thoughts about how societies function when there is no agreed-on version of “reality,” public knowledge, or news.
We take for granted that this was a challenge for Soviet citizens back in the Cold War days, when they relied on samizdat for non-government-authorized reports and criticisms. Obviously it’s a big issue for China’s public now. But its most consequential effects could be those the United States is undergoing, which have led to the elevation of the least prepared, most temperamentally unfit, least public-spirited person ever to assume the powers of the U.S. presidency.
The United States is seeing both a chronic and an acute new version of this public-information problem. The chronic version, recognized but nowhere close to being solved, is the rise of separate fact-universes into which different segments of society silo themselves—occurring at the same time as the “normal” news media are struggling against economic and other pressures.
The acute version is the emergence as president-elect of a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care. Tiniest example: On a single day during the campaign, Trump claimed that the National Football League had sent him a letter complaining that the presidential-debate schedule conflicted with NFL games (which the NFL immediately denied), and then he said the Koch brothers had begged him to accept their donations (which they also flat-out denied).
Most people would hesitate before telling easily disprovable lies like these, much as shoplifters would hesitate if the store owner is looking at them. Most people are fazed if caught in an outright lie. But in these cases and others, Trump never blinked. As part of his indispensable campaign coverage this summer, David Fahrenthold (and Robert O’Harrow) of The WashingtonPostoffered astonishing documentation of Trump being caught in a long string of business-related lies and simply not caring.
The news media are not built for someone like this.
Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. To close the loop, knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.
None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.
How can the press gird for action? Here are three early indications from the news:
1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst, TheWashington Post and TheLA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.” The Post used the headline at the top of this item, and the one below on another fact-check report:
The LAT also took this approach in an online story:
By contrast, the version I’ve seen from the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.
What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.
A long-experienced figure in the news business sent me a note about the contrasting Post and NYT stories:
It’s not that Trump cited no evidence, it’s that the claim itself is groundless. Reading The Times, you would think that Trump broke a debating rule.
Now look at the two ledes, emphases mine.
WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump said on Sunday that he had fallen short in the popular vote in the general election only because millions of people had voted illegally, leveling his claim — despite the absence of any such evidence — as part of a daylong storm of Twitter posts voicing anger about a three-state recount push.
President-elect Donald Trump spent Sunday ridiculing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign for joining a recount effort in Wisconsin, ending his day on Twitter by parroting a widely debunked conspiracy theory that her campaign benefited from massive voter fraud.
Subtler, perhaps, than their respective headlines, but one reflects the essential truth whereas the other is merely fatuously accurate.
2) Fighting for Reality Itself. I highly recommend this new essay by Ned Resnikoff at the Think Progress site. It explains the chaos-generating logic of Trump’s seemingly illogical stream of nonstop lies big and small, which Resnikoff traces to reality TV, to Breitbart and Steve Bannon, and to Vladimir Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov. It also lays out very different responsibilities for the press and public institutions from what they have assumed their duties to be. A sample about the media:
If the United States is to remain a liberal democracy, then Trump’s non-linear warfare needs to fail. Politics needs to once again become grounded in some kind of stable, shared reality. It’s not clear how that could happen. But there are at least a couple of steps that anti-authoritarians can make right away...
Journalists need to understand what Trump is doing and refuse to play by his rules. He is going to use the respect and deference typically accorded to the presidency as an instrument for spreading more lies. Reporters must refuse to treat him like a normal president and refuse to bestow any unearned legitimacy on his administration.
They must also give up their posture of high-minded objectivity — and, along with it, any hope of privileged access to the Trump White House. The incoming president has made clear that he expects unquestioning obedience from the press, and will regard anyone who doesn’t give it to him as an enemy.
Seriously, please read and reflect on this essay. Also, please read Michael Tomasky’s latest essay in TheDaily Beast.
3) Dealing with this kind of man. While I was chronicling Donald Trump’s lies, outbursts, and attention-failures in the Time Capsule series, I received a large amount of mail offering medical hypotheses for why he might behave the way he did. I suspect the same is true of most other reporters who have written about him. And like most other press operations, while the campaign was underway TheAtlantic deliberately decided not to “medicalize” any discussion of Trump’s behavior. Most of us are not doctors; even the doctors who were writing to us had not dealt with Trump firsthand; and from a civic point of view, the real issue was the behavior itself, not whatever label you might attach to it.
The campaign is now over; Trump is set to assume enormous power; and the world and the country need to understand how to deal with him. A reader with professional expertise in this field has sent a note on how journalism should prepare for Trump, especially in thinking about his nonstop string of lies.
Again, to be clear, this reader is not “medicalizing” Trump’s behavior or recommending that the press do so. But there are common-sense meanings for terms to describe behavior, which we can use without relying on a medical diagnosis. We can say someone seems cruel without saying he’s a psychopath; that he seems amoral without claiming he’s a sociopath; that he seems moody or depressed without implying a clinical diagnosis. And in common-sense terms, anyone can see that Trump’s behavior is narcissistic, regardless of underlying cause. I turn it over to the reader:
Now that he is poised to assume power, I (and a lot of others) are feeling some urgency around holding his worst tendencies in check and preventing him from following through on his noxious campaign challenges.
It troubles me to observe that so far the news media are having trouble when they deal with him directly. I am seeing good investigative reporting on his conflicts of interest, for instance, but it looked like the NY Times just sort of rolled over when they interviewed him in person.
Nobody seems to realize that normal rules do not apply when you are interviewing a narcissist. You can’t go about this in the way you were trained, because he is an expert at manipulating the very rules you learned. It’s clear to me that reporters (and anyone else) who will deal with DT directly need to take a crash course in handling someone displaying these behaviors.
The Times got in trouble by trying to make sense of his words. It’s an easy mistake for people in a word-saturated medium to make, but anyone who’s dealt with a narcissist knows you never, ever believe what they say—because they will say whatever the person they are talking to wants to hear. DT is a master at phrasing things vaguely enough that multiple listeners will be able to hear exactly what they want. It isn’t word salad; it’s overt deception, which is much more pernicious.
But the Times fell for it. I’m watching the same mistake get made over and over again, but I don’t know how to help journalists get out of the trap. If we are going to survive the days ahead, someone needs to teach reporters the difference between naming narcissism—[JF note: which, to emphasize, there is no point doing]— vs. dealing effectively with a narcissist.
There's a ton of information out there about how to deal with narcissists. I would really like to see journalists get as interested in the topic—and adept at the strategies—as abused spouses are. We need to somehow widely disseminate ideas for dealing with it.
Yesterday from China, I did a long item on the utter inadequacy of standard press practices in the face of a person like Donald Trump. Everything about “balance” and “objectivity” as news standards rests on a benefit-of-the-doubt assumption about public figures, and about the public audience. For the public figures, the assumption is that they’re at least trying not to lie, and that they’d rather not get caught. For the public audience, the assumption is that they’ll care about an ongoing record of honesty or deception. But those assumptions do not match the reality of Trump.
You can read the whole thing here. The summary is:
Unlike other public figures we’ve encountered, Donald Trump appears not even to register the difference between truth and lies. He lies when it’s not “necessary” or even useful. He lies when disproof is immediately at hand. He shows no flicker in the eye, or “tell” of any kind, when he is caught in a flat-out lie. Richard Nixon looked tense and sweaty when saying “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton went into his tortured “it depends what the meaning of is is” answer precisely because he was trying to avoid a direct lie.
Trump doesn’t care. Watching his face for discomfort or “tells” is like looking at an alligator for signs of remorse.
Thus the media have to start out with the assumption that anything Trump says is at least as likely to be false as true. He has forfeited any right to an “accurate until proven to be inaccurate” presumption of honesty. Thus a headline or framing that says “Trump claims, without evidence, [his latest fantasy]” does more violence to the truth than “Trump falsely claims...”
Now, two readers write in with detailed practical tips. The first, from a reader outside the U.S. with experience in publishing, is mainly about journalistic practices. This reader correctly refers to Trump’s behavior as narcissistic, without assuming any underlying medical diagnosis. The reader’s predictions and advice:
The mania for reporting every false or outrageous tweet as major news will eventually fade as everyone, including the public, gets tired of it. Smart people also know it’s a diversionary tactic and most people will eventually catch on. Smart people also know they’re lies, even if those persons are too partisan or embarrassed to admit it. Most people will eventually catch up on that front too. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. There will be some settling down around the time of the inauguration, followed by a steady slide. People only have so much patience for temper tantrums. Narcissists get old and ugly, especially when overexposed to sunlight.
In the meantime, less scrupulous members of Congress and appointed officials will use the diversions for their own ends. There must be continuous vigilance directed at these people as well and it might be up to the hometown media to be vigilant. It’s a great opportunity for ambitious young journalists to make a name for themselves, even if it’s stories about how Congressman Whosit rolled over and played dead. It is necessary to keep them honest. The hometown reporters will be the first to notice when someone is living beyond their expected means.
Pressure on members of Congress will help to keep pressure on the president, in turn ensuring that they act as a check and balance. The media can then report White House news indirectly from that angle, even if they can’t get a direct angle.
Members of Congress who act as a check and balance on the president will see their stars rise, especially if they are accessible to the media. The Narcissist in Chief isn’t the only person in Washington with an ego. It will start first with the Never Trumpers, especially those with nothing to lose, who are near retirement. Then the younger ones will want some of the glory. Again, an indirect conduit to White House news. They can use their authority to demand information, reducing the media’s research costs.
The bulk of the front-facing media attention will be on members of Congress, especially if the Narcissist in Chief refuses access, out of necessity. The Narcissist in Chief will react accordingly when he is no longer the center of attention and possibly dig a very deep inescapable hole for himself. Most of his attacks are projections, so that’s your first place to look.
A Deep Throat will come forward within a year, if not sooner. This leads me to a related point: As long as Melania Trump remains in Trump Tower and the Secret Service has two floors, it will be difficult to get information out of Trump Tower. Perhaps NYC will get tired of the security costs and hassles and that will change.
There will be a renaissance in investigative journalism. Ah, back to the glory days of Watergate.
FOIA, FOIA, FOIA. Did I mention FOIA? Shoe leather. Digging through court and registry files. You may also end up having to order transcripts of court hearings. SEC filings.
Cultivate the people who were around the failed businesses.
Keep a sharp eye on what the foreign press is covering. They’re watching what he’s doing in their countries and what their governments are doing to cultivate the U.S. president.
Get to know the people at the ACLU and other civil rights groups. They will uncover legislative initiatives the media might overlook and incidental findings that aren’t immediately relevant to the cases they’re litigating so they won’t come out in court. Some of this will be quite juicy.
We’ll probably see a continued increase in paid media subscriptions, as the media is seen as the only hope of keeping feet to the fire. Many more will come after people have paid off Christmas bills, if they didn’t receive them as gifts. Proposed Social Security and health insurance reforms will be big drivers of this. Baby Boomers and older seniors will be the ones buying the subscriptions initially. They’ll be frightened and Lord knows they don’t need any more tchotchkes for the house. Attention to issues that immediately affect that demographic will bring eyeballs to your sites. And a younger demographic will be wondering how they have to reorient their investment and life strategies. That’s the next wave: people needing in-depth analysis. What will they do with the new education paradigm for their kids?
Fake news sites will enchant for a while until the fake news hits too close to a subject the reader knows something about. Their credibility will be shot with the majority of the public before the end of the four-year term ...
Maybe I can have a bit of fun with an unrelated prediction here too. Now that no one is coming after their guns, the NRA will have a fundraising shortfall. It will be interesting to see what they do to make themselves relevant again.
I’ll keep this handy to compare against the unfolding news.
Next, a reader with mental-health experiences writes to point me toward what has become a very popular post on Medium, “Coping with Chaos in the White House.” It is by N. Ziehl and is adapted from an earlier Facebook post by the same writer.
The Medium post is a 10-point checklist, which I encourage you to read for yourself. Unlike most analysis of Trump’s behavior at TheAtlantic or other major press outlets, it’s based on a “medicalized” discussion of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. Again, I am explicitly not making any such medical assumptions. But if you assume that the list applies to the behaviors Donald Trump has unambiguously shown, I think you’ll find its items very useful. Samples:
1) [This behavior] is not curable and it’s barely treatable. He is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours…
2) He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time. He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this…. If you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.
4) Entitlement is a key aspect.... As we are already seeing, he will likely not observe traditional boundaries of the office… This particular attribute has huge implications for the presidency and it will be important for everyone who can to hold him to the same standards as previous presidents…
8) People [with these traits] often foster competition for sport in people they control. Expect lots of chaos, firings and recriminations… He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the NYT, with a confusing combination of punishing/rewarding, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior for rewards, call them on it.
And, some final how-to advice for media and citizens as we enter this new terrain:
10) Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention. Unfortunately we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the president, but don’t circulate his tweets or laugh at him — you are enabling him and getting his word out. (I’ve done this, of course, we all have… just try to be aware.) Pay attention to your own emotions: do you sort of enjoy his clowning? do you enjoy the outrage? is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are. We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.
We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.
Public trust in institutions is very low (all-time low?), and trust in the media is particularly low. Following the advice of James Fallows will make your core readership feel righteous and satisfied and dare I say smug, but it will further erode everyone else’s trust in you. To Trump supporters, it will look like a partisan attack by the liberal media, but there’s probably no hope of winning them over anyway, so let’s put them aside for now. To many other people—regular folks who simply don’t have time or skills to weigh evidence and evaluate sources—it will just look like opposing assertions.
Instead, what if instead of making this “illegal votes” episode a story about a “tweet” or a “lie” or even a liar, the media made it a story about a serious and dangerous claim by our president-elect? What if you actually doubled-down on the “normalizing” and gave Trump every opportunity to back up his claims with evidence? What if you refused to move on from this very serious issue and instead demanded that he explain seriously and at length why he believes that three million illegal votes were cast, and why they were cast only for Clinton?
What if you refused to move on from this one tweet for several weeks? What if the media did that for every dangerous claim made by this (elected) administration, baseless or otherwise? Don’t accuse him of lying. Instead, force him to use his platform to either back it up or back down. Don’t try to shoot him; give him a rope to hang himself with.
This next reader favors the opposite approach—ignore Trump’s antics and conspiracy theories whenever possible:
One major problem not being addressed is why any news media needs to put something like Trump’s tweet reaction to the recount on the front-page or at the head of their news feed? If the claim has no evidence, then what’s news here? What is there to report? I can read the damn tweet on my own; what do I need you or the NY Times to add to it? If Trump’s claim has “no evidence,” then go ask the guy if he has evidence—and then come back to me, the reader, and report some news on that.
Another reader favors the “go ask the guy” approach but dialed way up to 11:
While reading the Ned Resnikoff quote (and essay) that Fallows linked to, here’s a scenario that played out in my mind. In an interview or press conference, an exasperated reporter says something like, “Why should the American people believe anything you have to say, given the kind of outrageous lies you’ve told over and over again? Ted Cruz’s dad was involved with the JFK assassination? Obama is the founder of ISIS? These are baseless and absurd claims. Why should any foreign leader take you seriously? Why should we in the press take your words seriously? Your outrageous lies are very similar to the type employed by autocratic rulers, who try to cause confusion, infecting people with the feeling that the truth cannot be known. We in the press reject that notion, and we see your lying as an assault on facts and reality, and we're not going to put up with it!” I’m not a good dramatist, but you get the idea.
My hope is that the moment could be something that would reverberate through the press corps and maybe through the entire body politic. It would be an emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Perhaps, this is wishful thinking, but I feel the press and the larger American public need this type of jolt.
That reader continues:
The current overall approach from the media seems to gloss over Trump’s BS approach, moving on to things like his policy positions. But who cares about his policy positions if you can’t really believe what he says? If he really is lying to cause confusion, rather than communicate, then his words about policy or almost anything else don’t matter. This is a do-not-pass-go situation. At this point, Trump has to prove his good faith—that he actually wants to use words to communicate ideas, not to attack the notion that we can know reality in a shared and meaningful way. If he doesn’t, some kind of consequence has to occur— maybe really hostile coverage. I’m not sure what the answer is, but to proceed with covering him as if he were a normal president would be a dangerous charade, normalizing his BS.
By the way, I also think that the press should aggressively confront the Trump transition team and Congressional supporters about Trump’s conspiracy theories and outrageous lying. What do Pence, Ryan, McConnell, et al., think about his conspiracy theories and outrageous lies? Do they believe that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can actually agree upon facts and reality? Do they believe that this is important to our democracy? Do they not think that Trump’s lies are undermining these important beliefs? If they continue to support his lying, there should some consequence for them as well.
I feel like a line has to be drawn—a line dividing those who support a reality-based community versus those who are hostile to it. The Fourth Estate should be an ardent defender of reality-based communication and decision-making. It is essential to what they do, and without it, they and our democracy die.
Along those lines, a retired Foreign Service officer is “deeply concerned about the international implications of Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud”:
Embassy staff in China or Russia are bound to be told, “It doesn’t look like your governmental system is doing so well, does it? See, your future President is saying that your elections are rotten with fraud.” What could our people then say? For the sake of truth and the honor of the country, they can’t agree; but to disagree is to call their future boss a flagrant public liar. That he is in fact such a liar is, in that situation, beside the point. Our ability to advocate for our country is being recklessly endangered simply to satisfy Trump’s vanity.
Your reader makes an important point about refusing to label Trump but learning how to deal with him and his personality traits. Ironically, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, owns a newspaper, The Observer, that wrote an opinion article in January 2016: “How to Deal With a Narcissist: 5 Secrets Backed by Research.” It now seems like a cry for help. We now know why there are reports of Kushner being quiet when Trump talks. It’s one of the five strategies outlined in the piece. I also found an article from Psychology Today when trying to deal with a narcissist in my life: “8 Ways to Handle a Narcissist.”
A prominent person in the tech industry remarks on how the Trump is trying to play us:
Great blogging from Fallows and your readers on how the media can deal with Trump. Trolling, fake news, his lying—very serious issues for the media. I believe he and his folks are doing a lot to point “fire” when they want to distract from something else. For example, KellyAnne and the Romney thing take the heat off the conflicts of interest [here’s a link to the latter]. Trump saying something moderate on global warming or Obamacare, then, his minions/Republicans working behind the scenes destructively. Friends are reporting to me that they’re getting calls, a Trump recording, telling them to ask their representatives to push to repeal Obamacare. This is absolutely one of the hardest politicians the media has ever seen and he has an astonishing ability to manipulate.
Another reader, Mike, tries to keep us all focused on what really matters:
In addition to Fallows’ Time Capsules, I have collected a small list of similar resources:
Of course, this barely scratches the surface. I mean for Christ’s sake, he still hasn’t released his tax returns!
Many of these stories pop up and then fade away with the next news cycle (usually brought on by whatever new inane thing Trump has tweeted), so it seems to me like nothing really sticks: he is The Teflon Donald. He peddles paranoid conspiracies with a pathological persistence, and when journalists do their job, he hits back with claims of a “biased”, “rigged”, “phony”, “failing” media. This is, as they say, problematic.
This next reader thinks that even Fallows isn’t going far enough in “calling it like it is”:
In the spirit of your own blogging, in addition to using the words Lie and False and Cruel and Amoral, etc., when they fit, please use the word Propaganda. This is an intentional pattern and strategy of our Propagandist-in-Chief. Please stop calling it “a furry creature that barks and chases squirrels up trees” and start calling it a dog.
Another suggestion for the media comes from reader Greg:
I believe journalists should stop using the word “tweet” to describe the tweets that Mr. Trump so often issues. Now that he is President-elect, his tweets carry far more significance than just the off-the cuff rants of an impulsive campaigner, as was often the way they were characterized in the past year. Calling these soon-to-be-presidential statements “tweets” only reinforces the tendency to not take his comments so seriously. But these are now presidential pronouncements. They express policy, positions. If Mr. Trump is going to continue to use Twitter as a major form of communication, then give these communiques (another good word for them) the gravitas they deserve. If The Atlantic still feels a need to source them to “Twitter,” then do it a final sentence or somewhere else in the story.
Another suggestion comes from another reader named Mike:
It would be interesting to see a new Time Capsule series focused on one issue: who in the media is vying to be the next Judith Miller and Matt Cooper. Both of these individuals were totally played by the GW Bush administration and wittingly played along for their own career success. I’m sure you remember the whole Iraq war thing. Sadly, I have no doubt that a new generation of reporters have no concern for truth or hard investigative work. They are too busy fluffing their nest today. Not to mention all the financially focused, false-news web sources that have exploded in number.
Investigative journalism needs to call out its own pretenders. I believe that should be a guideline for the media in reporting on the upcoming liar-in-chief administration.
This last reader, Rob, proposes an extremely unlikely but interesting scenario:
Donald Trump has upended the political and ethical norms of American presidential campaigns. This has been said so often and has been true for so long that observers may be numb to it. The list of unprecedented acts and statements is long and varied. [Fallows assiduously chronicled them here.] None of these acts are strictly speaking illegal. Yet they are shocking nonetheless because, taken together, they reflect his view that he may do anything that is strictly speaking legal to advance his narrow personal interests. That is, Mr. Trump has implicitly rejected the idea that extra-legal social, political, and ethical norms support our democracy and enable it to function even when the nation is deeply divided.
If Donald Trump the norm-destroying candidate were to become Donald Trump the norm-destroying President, the consequences for the stability of our democratic governing institutions could be grave. Freedom will not flourish where the conduct of those in power is regulated by law alone. Those who want to “give him a chance” implicitly hope, even if they don’t necessarily expect, that the weight of the office will transform Mr. Trump into someone more attentive to the importance of long established norms.
But hope is not a plan, especially when the stakes are so high. So I am proposing that the House of Representatives prepare, and have at the ready from Day 1 of the Trump administration, draft articles of impeachment that will do what Donald Trump may be unwilling to do: enforce norms rooted in fundamental constitutional commitments.
I have drafted templates (modeled on the Articles of Impeachment of Bill Clinton) and appended them [in my email]. My examples highlight two constitutional principles worthy of protection through threat of impeachment. The first three articles deal with the potential for Mr. Trump to use his office for financial gain, either his own or that of family members or business associates. The last article deals with the potential for Mr. Trump to use the vast powers of the executive branch to impose costly, embarrassing, and disruptive investigations on his political enemies and critics.
Both kinds of abuse of power may not be strictly “illegal” in the sense of violating any governing statutes, and they are unlikely to be within the reach of courts to prevent. For that reason, it is all the more important for Congress to rise in defense of them.
I am not naive. I recognize that the House of Representatives (and the Senate) are presently in the control of the same party as Mr. Trump. The House is not going to impeach the President on the first day of his administration, and it shouldn’t. But that is not a reason to refuse to prepare them. In fact, there are several reasons to prepare the articles even if they remain in a drawer during the entirety of the Trump administration.
First, the act of publicly preparing the draft articles themselves will serve as a marker of important constitutional norms that Mr. Trump transgresses at his and the nation’s peril. Drafting model articles of impeachment will inform not only the President himself, but also those in his administration. There are constraints on the President built into the deliberative process within the executive branch. Articles of impeachment pre-drafted by members of Congress could strengthen the hands of those in the administration who see public value in restraining the self-serving impulses of the President. And, of course, drafting articles of impeachment would inform the public as well, providing a baseline against which to judge Mr. Trump’s choices.
Second, publicly preparing the draft would itself be a valuable assertion of Congress’s role in regulating the outer edge of what is a vast area of discretion committed to the executive branch. Defining the boundaries of permissible executive discretion is not a job only for the President or the Supreme Court. The President always has an interest in advancing the power of his own office. And transgressions that affect the political culture writ large may well prove out of the Court’s reach. Congress has an institutional interest in overseeing executive branch abuses. Under the unprecedented circumstances we face, with this incoming President so cavalierly expressing a willingness to abuse the powers of his office, it is especially important for Congress to declare its readiness to police the conduct of the President himself.
Third, sometimes the credible threat of deploying power is all it takes to encourage better conduct. For example, the President possesses the veto power. But he will commonly issue a veto threat, after careful internal White House deliberation, in an effort to encourage Congress to take a better course of action. Likewise here, a credible impeachment threat may be all it takes to encourage President Trump to take a better course of action.
Fourth, it is no secret that the President and many members of the Republican congressional delegation do not see eye to eye on matters of policy and personal conduct. By declaring their intention to police the President on matters of constitutional principle related to his personal conduct, the Republican leadership would be able to maintain separation from a President they have reason to fear may disappoint for lack of experience and competence across a wide array of his responsibilities. Republican members of Congress may not wish to tie their political fortunes so tightly to this President. If some meaningful number of Republicans could stand on Constitutional principle and endorse the drafting of potential articles of impeachment, Congress would be credibly threatening actual impeachment should Mr. Trump not alter his behavior.
I recognize the irony of proposing an act that runs contrary to a political norm (Congress threatening an incoming President with impeachment) in defense of political norms in general. But the damage from the election and transition process is substantial. And Mr. Trump has shown almost no indication that he is approaching his new and rather awesome responsibilities with a respect for the dignity of the office and the power it carries. Scolding the cast of a Broadway show via Twitter, and baselessly asserting that his opponent’s popular vote lead is the product of “millions” of fraudulent votes suggests that this President-elect has learned precisely the wrong lesson: that indulging his petty, self-serving impulses works. The only institution with the authority to declare that he is wrong is Congress.
Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they’ve been deceived.
Something very strange has been happening in Missouri: A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.
Missouri is suffering one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country. Some hospitals are rapidly running out of ICU beds. To Americans who rushed to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, some Missourians’ desire for secrecy is difficult to understand. It’s also difficult to square with the common narrative that vaccine refusal, at least in conservative areas of the country, is driven by a lack of respect or empathy from liberals along the coasts. “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics—or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all,” lamented a recent article in the conservative National Review. Writers across the political spectrum have urged deference and sympathy toward holdouts’ concerns about vaccine side effects and the botched CDC messaging about masking and airborne transmission early in the pandemic. But these takes can’t explain why holdouts who receive respect, empathy, and information directly from reliable sources remain unmoved—or why some people are afraid to tell their loved ones about being vaccinated.
If you can shrug it off as just another incident of Trump talking too much, then you have already signed up for the next incident—and the one after that.
While he was president of the United States, Donald Trump tried to overthrow the election of 2020, first by fraud, then by violence. His efforts were defeated in great part because of the integrity and courage of state-level Republican officials.
Half a year has now passed since supporters of the president stormed Congress in an effort to coerce Vice President Mike Pence to declare Trump the winner of the 2020 election. In that time, honest and brave state Republican officials have been reviled, condemned, and punished by their own party.
The president was impeached, but most Republicans in the House voted against the impeachment, and most in the Senate voted to acquit. Trump has otherwise to date escaped all consequences for his attempted destruction of the Constitution. He remains the Republican Party’s best fundraiser, and the clear front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
A recent arrival at the International Space Station created a little too much excitement.
Mission control in Houston first noticed it Thursday morning.
The International Space Station was drifting. The station is always moving, of course, in a looping trajectory around Earth. But this, what mission control was seeing in the latest data, was unexpected, and unnerving. On Thursday morning, the space station was suddenly and mysteriously deviating from its course.
The massive pieces of NASA-built hardware that hold the space station in place couldn’t keep up with the motion, and within minutes, the station had been thrown out of its usual orientation.
NASA quickly turned to Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. To counter the shift, Moscow’s mission control commanded one of its modules on the space station to ignite its engines, then instructed a cargo ship to fire its thrusters too. Inside the station, astronauts reconfigured important systems. Twice, ground control lost communications with the crew for several minutes. The longer the space station remained off track, the more scrambled its operations, including the communication system and solar panels, could become.
I carried on for more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, but I didn’t see the next plague coming.
After the end of the world, there will be birdsong. I used to imagine this when everything was going awry. I would lie in bed in my college dorm room and listen to the lone mockingbird who sang all night outside my window in the spring months. I was worried about something or other; he was getting on with things. It’s what birds do. They have a knack for it. In the Book of Genesis, after the devastation of the Earth by God’s cataclysmic flood, Noah releases from his ark a dove; he knows that the trial has ended when the bird does not return, having alighted somewhere out in the damp and dreary world, the first land-dwelling creature to begin the work of carrying on.
What else is there to do? When COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, late in the winter of 2020, I told myself as much. In plagues, as in life, there is a morally arbitrary hierarchy of luck, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my family and I were among the lucky ones. I was in my late 20s, hale and hearty, my husband the same plus a couple of years. Our children were young—our baby was, in fact, under a year old, something I eventually mentioned in a meekly anxious aside to a doctor I was interviewing for a story on the emerging pandemic. He acknowledged certain risks in the way that doctors do, and then said: “Don’t worry. Kids are kicking ass with this thing.” I was both comforted and chastened; this wasn’t mine to panic about. The best I could do for those in peril was to carry on.
In the time I spent with Mike Lindell, I came to learn that he is affable, devout, philanthropic—and a clear threat to the nation.
When you contemplate the end of democracy in America, what kind of person do you think will bring it about? Maybe you picture a sinister billionaire in a bespoke suit, slipping brown envelopes to politicians. Maybe your nightmare is a rogue general, hijacking the nuclear football. Maybe you think of a jackbooted thug leading a horde of men in white sheets, all carrying burning crosses.
Here is what you probably don’t imagine: an affable, self-made midwesterner, one of those goofy businessmen who makes his own infomercials. A recovered crack addict, no less, who laughs good-naturedly when jokes are made at his expense. A man who will talk to anyone willing to listen (and to many who aren’t). A philanthropist. A good boss. A patriot—or so he says—who may well be doing more damage to American democracy than anyone since Jefferson Davis.
I knew the president had clear and straightforward talking points—I’d written them.
One phone call changed my life.
On Thursday, July 25, 2019, I was seated at the table in one of the two Situation Rooms in the basement of the West Wing. The bigger room is famous from movies and TV shows, but this room is smaller, more typically businesslike: a long wooden table with 10 chairs, maybe a dozen more chairs against wood-paneled walls, and a massive TV screen. This was the room where President Barack Obama and his team watched a feed of the Osama bin Laden raid. This morning, the screen was off. We were all focused intently on the triangular conference-call speaker in the middle of the table. President Donald Trump’s communications team was placing a call to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and we were there to listen.
Instead of propelling students into the middle class, many public institutions such as the University of Alabama are leaving them saddled with large loans.
Weeks into his freshman year at the Marion Military Institute, a public two-year college in Alabama, Thomas was bored. The campus, in the sleepy, hard-luck town of Marion, lacked the glitzy amenities of modern-day universities. To escape the institute’s starchy military uniforms and rigid schedule, Thomas would jump in his truck on weekends and head to Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama.
The University of Alabama had a meticulously groomed campus and stately redbrick buildings whose white colonnades conveyed scholastic gravitas. It had the championship-caliber Crimson Tide football team and legendary game-day tailgating with students swilling beer on fraternity-house rooftops. It featured amenities such as a state-of-the-art recreation center with a climbing wall and a “lazy river” pool complex with a 30-foot water slide. Fraternities hosted world-class rock concerts. A campus dining hall served steak cooked to order.
Two students went to Amy Chua for advice. That sin would cost them dearly.
Every striver who ever slipped the rank of their birth to ascend to a higher order has shared the capacity to ingratiate themselves with their betters. What the truly exceptional ones have in common is the ability to connect not only with their superiors but also with their peers and inferiors. And only the rarest talents among them can bond authentically—not just transactionally—with the people who will help them be who they want to be in the world. It’s a preternatural, almost Promethean gift if you have it, and Amy Chua does.
Thus begins the scandal dubbed “dinner-party-gate,” the latest in the annals of Amy Chua, Yale Law’s very own Tiger Mom, whose infamous defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the “dinner-party-gate” of its day approximately three years ago. Then, as now, Chua’s differences with some denizens of her milieu played out in the press, vituperations, allegations, insinuations, and all.
Fourteen years ago I was wrongfully convicted of murdering my roommate. Ever since, the world has believed it can tell me who I really am.
Does my name belong to me? Does my face? What about my life? My story? Why is my name used to refer to events I had no hand in? I return to these questions again and again because others continue to profit off my identity, and my trauma, without my consent. Most recently, there is the film Stillwater, directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin, which was, in McCarthy’s words, “directly inspired by the Amanda Knox saga.” How did we get here?
In the fall of 2007, a British student named Meredith Kercher was studying abroad in Perugia, Italy. She moved into a little cottage with three roommates—two Italian law interns, and an American girl. Less than two months into her stay, a young man named Rudy Guede, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, broke into the apartment and found Meredith alone. Guede had a history of breaking and entering. A week prior, he had been arrested in Milan while burglarizing a nursery school, and was found carrying a 16-inch knife. He was released. A week later, he raped Meredith and stabbed her in the throat, killing her. In the process, he left his DNA in Meredith’s body and throughout the crime scene. He left his fingerprints and footprints in her blood. He fled to Germany immediately afterward, and later admitted to being at the scene.
The director Tom McCarthy is known for subtle, well-acted character films that take surprising narrative turns. His latest work is no exception.
Stillwater’s premise is simple: What if you were Amanda Knox’s father? This Matt Damon–starring project from the director Tom McCarthy is only loosely based on reality, but the dilemma facing roughneck Oklahoma dad Bill Baker (played by Damon) has the same sensational hook: His daughter is imprisoned in Europe after being found guilty of murdering her roommate in a splashy trial. Most viewers will remember that Knox was ultimately exonerated, and might expect Stillwater to be about a similar quest for justice. And it is … until it isn’t.
This is McCarthy’s theatrical follow-up to the Oscar Best Picture–winningSpotlight (he did, in between, make a children’s film for Disney+), and while it has some of the sober fact-finding of that great film, it is more reminiscent of earlier McCarthy works such as Win Win and The Visitor—subtle, well-acted character dramas that take surprising narrative turns. Much of Stillwater’s opening actfollows Bill’s amateurish efforts to revive his daughter’s closed case in Marseille, despite not speaking French and having no background in criminal justice. But McCarthy’s excellent, if sprawling, script is more interested in the humans behind the headlines and the messy ways people try to reconcile their grief and guilt after indescribable trauma.