Reporter's Notebook

The Temple of Castori, in the old Forum in Rome
The Temple of Castori, in the old Forum in Rome. In 2003, archaeologists discovered evidence that Emperor Caligula had turned this temple into the front porch of his residence. “Everyone knows this guy was a little crazy. But now we have proof that he was completely off his rocker, that he thought he was one of the gods,” Darius Arya, one of the directors of the excavation, said after the discovery. Tony Gentile / Reuters

What’s the point of writing a “thought experiment” article, like mine in the current issue about the bright side of the Dark Ages?

It’s to generate some thoughts! On top of the first round of responses—which were variations on “Actually, the Dark Ages were pretty dark”—here is a stand-alone. It is from my longtime friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, from the local to the global.

He writes now about the proper lessons to be drawn from comparing modern America’s prospects to those of Rome, after the fall. What follows is a long but highly condensed version of his note. I would direct your attention to the place where he ends his argument: Local innovation is important now, and always has been. The difference now is the potential and scale of global/local connections.

Over to Schnurer. I have added some subheads in bold to highlight the stages of his argument—which, again, I hope you’ll think through to the end:

I read with interest your piece on the fall of the Roman empire … in part because of the fact that you were really discussing a number of contemporary issues of obvious interest to me.

I think of these being less the local aspect, and more the large-scale global future …

It’s not the fall of the Roman empire we should worry about. It’s the fall of the Roman republic. One could argue that the fall of Rome wasn’t so “awful” [JF note: This is Edward Gibbons’s term], because, by that time, Rome was pretty “awful” itself. The empire’s peak— particularly the heights of both power and intellectual advance of the Five Good Emperors—was long behind it.

However much as I may like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (and I always found it interesting that Gladiator set its story in this period, and has Russell Crowe restore democracy at the end, as if to fantasize how great Rome would be if the history we know had simply ended after Trajan and we then got to go back to the republic … ), Rome’s true greatness begins and ends for me (and I suspect for you and most of your readers) with the Roman republic. In fact, I don’t think the problem with the U.S. today is that it resembles Rome at the end of the empire, but rather that it resembles Rome at the end of the republic.

Or, rather, not long before, with the rise of the Gracchi—the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of “the greater good” by what we’d call “special interests,” the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me …


The real question: Where is America headed? Sure, you can talk about the growth of monasteries and universities in the Dark Ages as a wonderful thing, but (a) what we really mean by that is how wonderful it is that there were islands of light in what was otherwise a sea of darkness, (b) that darkness went on a long time, (c) what came out of it, which you/we now celebrate as the result, was essentially:

  • the rediscovery of the lost knowledge of Greece and Rome (not to mention the Islamic world) that kindled the Renaissance and Enlightenment;
  • the reemergence of something resembling “globalization”; and
  • the end of the horrific destructiveness of the Middle Ages—due largely to the institution of local fiefdoms that your piece celebrates as a sort of Brandeisian laboratory—thanks to their replacement by the modern nation-state and the European state system, which represented a recentralization of authority and stability, not a devolution.

What I actually find more interesting is what your piece says about where we’re headed, which is what I’ve been focusing on, lo! these many years.


Seeing the world through a distorted 20th-century lens. I think there’s a tendency—especially among people of your/my generation [JF note: For me, the dreaded Baby Boomers]—to see major change and progress coming in large-scale, centralized, and particularly federal efforts.

This is a warping effect that the civil-rights and Vietnam eras, with a dose of coming-right-after-the-FDR-era, has had on our understanding of U.S. history.

I’ve seen it in myself and like-minded peers who went into law to change the world and discovered, by the time we got out of law school, that the court system is reactionary and basically always has been that way, except for about six years; the idea that the Supreme Court is the great instrument for social advance that gets us around the parochial-ness of our politics has it exactly backwards.

This is symptomatic of a larger misperception: Yes, great changes come suddenly and on a grand scale—but to say that that’s “the change” is to misunderstand the chaotic nature of all systems.

Sand piles collapse all at once, scientific revolutions occur due to sudden “paradigm shifts,” civil-rights and Reagan revolutions and the rise of Trump/Brexitism burst on the scene—but these are long-term dynamics that may have large-scale effects but play out on the level of individual grains of sand.

There’s a great George Bernard Shaw line about the moment of success occurring long before the moment that it is apparent to the crowd; this is true of just about everything. Brown v. Board took 40 years of small litigation steps—not to mention dramatic changes throughout society, including the integration of the armed forces during and after WWII, just as the massive mobilizations of the peasantry in the Napoleonic Wars led eventually to the democratization of Europe. The big events are the capstones—they are always driven and made possible by small-scale, localized innovations that eventually flow together into what is by then an inevitable deluge.

Brown’s and Scheidel’s celebration of the breakup of the empire as allowing local innovations strikes me as wrong in the same sort of way: These local innovations are always occurring, because that’s where innovation occurs.

This is like the discussion I’m having these days with my 26-year-old niece, who wants to go overturn the entire capitalist and food-production systems to bring about the millennium; having once been 26, I get it, but I have to keep telling her that, with rare exceptions like the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Taiping Kingdom, etc., you rarely get to upheave the entire system all at once—and when you do, it usually doesn’t turn out too well … In any event, my argument would really be that all of those were not sudden upheavals, any more than Trump’s election was; they were simply culminations of longer trends that started from smaller scale “innovations.”


The enlightening place to look is always local. If you want to know where the world is headed, you need to find the unknown lunatics toiling away in a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, or a patent office in Basel, or a garage in Menlo Park, California, or the mayor’s office in South Bend—not what the world leaders and experts are saying … I don’t know if finding what people are up to should be encouraging of optimism—I mean, some local innovation includes some bizarre people meeting in Munich beer halls who a decade later launch WWII—but it’s instructive

Local is where most people always choose to get involved: It’s not just the current dysfunctionality that channels most people into school-board meetings instead of seeking to draft new national legislation. Some small number of crazy people like you and me are drawn to the latter, but that’s a distinct minority, always has been, and always will be.

My work has brought me into contact with people all around the country who were thinking about productive little ideas about how to improve their neighborhoods, their kid’s school, their small business and how it affected their workers, etc. … My contribution has been largely in recognizing them and thinking, Hey, that would make a great basis for a “program” that my candidate could propose, scale up, and fund as governor!

I eventually concluded—as has anyone I know who has thought about government systems from the standpoint of achieving results instead of promoting one’s career—that what state and (ESPECIALLY) national governments do is simply to fund to-scale solutions someone else has discovered, tested, and proved at an “atomic” level …

The way to make a contribution is to go start a school that works, or a neighborhood organization that solves a problem …


Coming to a “point of rupture,” which sounds bad, but … And that takes us to where we’re actually headed as a result. You quote Morley Winograd talking about “networked localities” taking control of global policy. I think that’s sorta correct: In the Aztec language, there’s a phenomenon of two words being placed together to mean something both synergistic and different from the words separately; e.g., “the flower the song” meant “poetry,” and “the water the fire” meant “conquest” or “destruction.”

I think you need to look at your/Winograd’s phrase networked localities in the same way: It’s not just, or even, about the devolution to localities—the “networked” part is essential, and changes the meaning.

Your own work focuses very much on local action and innovation; I’ve been arguing that the virtual world fundamentally changes all of this: It undermines territorial structures like nation-states and the new world order—in that way, Brexit, Scottish devolution, California and even cities going their own way on the Paris accords, cities globally becoming the players rather than nation-states, etc., are all foreseeable developments …

I think we will start developing worldwide “communities” that are not physically connected, but rather are “localized” in the sense of being nodes of innovation or communication or consumption or whatever in a non-physically-contiguous/nonphysical network …

And that’s ultimately what the post-empire question is about. The entire system of civilization as we know it—not simply “the American empire”—is coming to a point of rupture. There may very well be a largely recognizable U.S. at the end of it (although I doubt it), but that will be irrelevant, because the world in which that U.S. is embedded—its political structures, its economic structures, its entire intellectual framework, and its physical manifestations—will all have changed as radically as the 13th century is from today.

And all that massive change will happen massively more quickly than in the 13th century … I write and talk about stuff like this, and people think it sounds “awful” and scary. Where I perhaps share a bit of your optimism is that I don’t.

Sure, the entire world as we know it being wiped away sounds scary, but it’s not necessarily “awful.” If you told people in the 13th century about the world today—family, church, village, political overlord, entire basis of the economy, entire intellectual framework (“Evolution?” “Relativity?” “Quantum mechanics?”), all as you knew them completely gone—they’d think that 100 percent awful. But do you know a single person who would rather be living in the 13th century than today?

More from this series

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A portrait statue of Edward Gibbon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in the Library of Congress in Washington
A portrait statue of Edward Gibbon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in the Library of Congress in Washington Library of Congress

The new issue of the print magazine contains a story by me called “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.”

The title (which, like most titles, I didn’t write) represented (like many titles) intentional overstatement-for-effect. But the point of the piece was to suggest that maybe Americans should shift the way they talked and thought about the Roman Empire as a metaphor for this country.

For as long as there has been an American republic, some Americans have worried about its impending Roman-style decline and fall. I said: What about the time after Rome fell? What could we learn by imagining ourselves in our version of the Dark Ages—with a failed system of central governance, and life going on at the duchy-by-duchy, monastery-by-monastery level, which for us would mean cities, states, and regions?

You can read the whole thing yourself—and it isn’t even very long. Readers have weighed in with a range of views.

In this first roundup, I’ll highlight only critical ones. You’ll see some common themes here, expressed with clarity and erudition that make it a privilege to reach this kind of readership—even when, as now, they’re giving me a hard time writing in to disagree. I’ll have a brief response at the end.

Let’s begin:

  1. Not “transition” but “collapse.” From a reader in an academic post:

Oh my, you dove into a nasty controversy here. While scholars like Peter Brown and Walter Goffart make an  interesting case about “transition,” people like Bryan Ward-Perkins have made what I think is a more compelling case about “collapse of civilization.”

A few things to keep in mind—and on these no one debates:

  • Population fell. That is a vaguely neutral sounding term, but that is shorthand for murder, rape, starvation, and disease.
  • Literacy diminished dramatically or was largely lost.
  • Material possessions diminished in quality and quantity. People were poorer.

I know you are on a pitch about the renewal of our country at the local level. I think that is wishful thinking, but whatever. But the Roman example is a doleful one. Yes, some institutions thrived, but people didn’t. They became poorer, less secure, and less literate.

Seeing the Fall/Transition of the Roman empire as anything other than a human catastrophe is an interesting academic exercise, but let’s keep it at that.


  1. “The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.”  From another reader, who in his day job is a successful software designer. (This is Mark Bernstein, of Eastgate, designer of the program Tinderbox and long-ago guest blogger on this site, when “guest blogging” was a thing.)

The indispensable book on the end of Rome in the West is Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall Of Rome and the End of Civilization.  It’s a very short book, it’s important, and it’s fun to read.

One key observation: in the 4th century, an impoverished Italian shepherd ate his dinner on imported tableware, drank imported wine and seasoned his salad with imported oil. He covered his roof (and maybe his manger’s roof as well) in mass-produced roof tiles. In the 6th century, the proudest possessions of kings were fancy safety pins, and their palaces were wooden halls with thatched roofs. In the years of the Empire, Rome imported so much olive oil that the 53 million decommissioned amphorae now form the hill of Monte Testaccio. In the eighth, kings made do with whatever the local brewers could manage, and poured for their guests from decorated beakers made next door.

In the fourth century, Romans built the Old St. Peters and repurposed the Lateran; it’s been through lots of rebuilding but the Roman building was about the modern size.  It’s big. In the sixth century, they built Santa Maria In Aracoeli—a small building, constructed on some of Rome’s prime real estate out of mismatched scraps and bits of junk. The junk was nicer than anything money could buy.  And they built S. Agnese fuori-le-mura, which is the size of a nice house.

A Pompeiian perfume-seller left us long brothel graffiti as a tribute to a lovely evening. Lots of poor people left us graffiti. Charlemagne never quite managed to learn to write.

To the best of my knowledge, we know too little about what happened to North Africa in this era. It wasn’t pretty. In the second century, North Africa was a real economic powerhouse and a huge food exporter. The irrigation system was wrecked in battles over tax cuts for wealthy estate-owners, and that was that. It was an ecological disaster that made the Western Empire unsupportable.


I’m not sure that the delocalization of governance in the West is an encouraging lesson, either. Yes, there were bright spots—Lindesfarne, Kells, Aachen, Kyev—but they were bright in contrast to the prevailing misery. Look at the opening of The Ruin (trans. Aaron Hostetter https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/):

These wall-stones are wondrous—

calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants corrupted.

The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

Whoever wrote this knew more than we about what living in the 8th century was like, and he seems pretty certain that things had once been better than they were.


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Conservative Party leaders getting the news of their big defeat in yesterday's vote: from left, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What can Americans learn from the dissident faction that outmaneuvered them?
Conservative Party leaders getting the news of their big defeat in yesterday's vote: from left, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What can Americans learn from the dissident faction that outmaneuvered them? Jessica Taylor via U.K. Parliament via Reuters

After the riveting debate in Parliament yesterday about the terms and timing for Brexit, 21 Tory “rebel” MPs defected from the Conservative party on a major vote. They joined members of other parties in dealing a crushing defeat to Boris Johnson’s plans and probably his governing prospects.

After the vote, I opined on Twitter that the 21 Tories, who included several revered party elders, set an example in political courage for U.S. politicians. The 21 knew very well that they would pay a price. Johnson’s party-leadership team made clear before the vote that it would “remove the whip” from MPs who defied them, which meant that dissidents would be kicked out of the party, and in the next election they would be “delisted” as candidates to retain their seats. For most, this would seriously dampen their political prospects.

By contrast, American politicians can seem paralyzed by the mere threat of being “primaried,” or of losing a funding source, or of becoming the object of Donald Trump’s angry tweets. Therefore I wondered, in my short item, why can’t we be more like the Brits? More specifically, why can’t members of our governing party, the 53 Republicans who control the Senate, stand up to their party’s leader the way these Tories stood up to Boris Johnson?

A reader in the U.S. writes in to say, Wait a minute. Here is his case:

While I admire the courage of the 21 Tory Members of Parliament who
voted against Boris Johnson’s government, and I wish that Republican
Members of Congress, would stand up to President Trump, I don’t think the comparison is necessarily a good one.

The actions of Boris Johnson’s government have forced a clear and
immediate choice on the Tory Members in a way that we haven’t seen in the US under the Trump administration.

Since the referendum in the UK, Parliament has been unable to move one way or the other on Brexit. This isn’t so different from what is
happening in our Congress.

Boris Johnson’s latest move forces a decision with immediate
consequences: (1) a no-deal Brexit could have a severe impact on the
lives of the majority of the people in Britain, including supporters
of the Tory party and (2) prorogation of Parliament at this critical
time is a direct threat to the power of the legislature in British
politics. We can’t read the minds of the rebel Torys, but avoiding
being tied to a no-deal Brexit and being a member of a Parliament with
diminished powers could be seen as self interest.


As much as I am horrified by almost everything the Trump
administration is doing, nothing yet has come close to this in
bringing an immediate and visible threat to a significant majority of
Americans (or Republicans) and directly challenging the power of
congress.

Many things Trump has done will have severe consequences, but it seems that much of this is still invisible to most Americans. If
Trump’s administration has been talented at anything, perhaps it’s
been in avoiding anything with the immediate and widespread impact of a no-deal Brexit.

Republican legislators have not faced anything like prorogation or a
no-deal Brexit. I have no confidence that they would show similar
courage, but we can’t say for sure.

Perhaps the closest thing to prorogation of Parliament that happened
is the refusal to vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination. That wasn’t
Trump, and unfortunately, John Bercow wasn’t there to help us.

John Bercow is, of course, the gloriously histrionic speaker of the House of Commons, a role that—especially as played by him—has vastly more minute-by-minute influence over the conduct of parliamentary debates than its U.S. legislative counterparts. If you haven’t seen Bercow in action, you will quickly get an idea with this YouTube sample from yesterday’s proceedings, when Boris Johnson’s allies challenged Bercow’s judgment on an important ruling.

As for the reader’s comment that changes of the Trump era remain “invisible,” clearly he is not minimizing what they have meant. Detention camps along the border; farmers and manufacturers coping with tariffs; wilderness land opened for drilling; a president touting his own resort as a site for the next G7 conference—a lot of what has happened is all too grossly visible.

Instead, I think the reader’s point worth noting is that, for a variety of reasons, many people in the U.S. have managed to overlook or excuse away the daily toll. (To give just one example, the former “deficit hawk” Republicans, such as White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who have gone mute as the tax-cut-driven deficit soars.) By contrast, politicians in Britain believed they faced a right-now, up-or-down, do-or-die choice about the nation’s future, which called for people to line up and be counted that day.

The U.S., too, will face such a choice, no later than November 3, 2020.

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
A country road with "Good Health" written on it in block letters
Gustavo Frazao via Shutterstock

Of the many challenges for America’s rural communities, near the top of the list is access to health care. Rural clinics and hospitals are closing across the nation. When they close, it’s hard for younger families, and older residents, to stay in town—and harder to attract new businesses, or attract replacements for the doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers who may be retiring from their practices or just leaving town.

Previously we’ve reported on the realities of smaller-town and rural health care in Brownsville, Texas, and Ajo, Arizona. This is a report from the smallest city we have visited in our travels, in spectacularly beautiful though remote far Down East Maine.


Today’s health care in Eastport, Maine, traces its roots back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). In this, it is like a large number of other small communities across the country. Just as today’s libraries bear the century-old imprint of Andrew Carnegie, and many of today’s post offices and other public buildings are legacies of construction and mural-painting efforts launched during the Great Depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt, today’s remaining rural clinics are, in many cases, the effects of an initiative launched 50 years ago. Along with other OEO initiatives, such as Job Corps, VISTA, and Head Start, that remain to this day, this rural-health initiative has shaped the primary health care in poor or underserved areas long since it was started.

Back in the 1960s, enter a young medical doctor and civil-rights activist with a vision. This was H. Jack Geiger, who had spent time in South Africa during medical school and had seen the positive impact that the community health-care model had in the very poor area of Pholela. Later, back in the United States, he spent time in the Mississippi Delta for the Freedom Summer project of 1964 as field coordinator for the Medical Committee for Human Rights.

When he returned to Boston, Geiger connected his observations in South Africa and the Mississippi Delta. Along with a colleague, Count Gibson, Geiger proposed to the OEO to try out what he had learned by starting two experimental, community-based health-care programs, one in Boston’s Columbia Point housing project and the other in the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, these became models for the roughly 1,400 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) that serve more than 28 million people around the U.S. today.

During our travels for American Futures and Our Towns reporting, my husband, Jim, and I visited two examples of these community-based health centers: Desert Senita Community Health Center in Ajo, Arizona, and the Rowland B. French Medical Center in Eastport, Maine.

Their FQHC designation is a godsend for rural health-care centers. It ensures that the centers will receive, among other things, enhanced reimbursements for patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare, and will offer a sliding scale for those without any coverage. It promises federal malpractice-insurance coverage for providers, extra partnerships for the centers, and more specialist care. Each center is unique in its profile, depending on the community’s needs. For example, the Rowland B. French Medical Center has providers for behavioral health counseling, podiatry, radiology, nephrology, and social support. Desert Senita has a regularly visiting cardiologist and ophthalmologist, a certified Spanish translator, and a special phone line with third-party translators for multiple languages.

All notes on "Eastport, Maine" >
The editorial and business office of the Quoddy Tides newspaper, in downtown Eastport, Maine
The editorial and business office of the Quoddy Tides newspaper, in downtown Eastport, Maine James Fallows

This is another road report on the state of local journalism, which is more and more important, and more and more imperiled.

It is important because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level. Educational innovation, promotion of new industries and creation of fairer opportunities, absorption of new arrivals (in growing communities) and retaining existing talent (in shrinking ones), reform of policing and prison practices, equitable housing and transportation policies, offsets to addiction and homelessness and other widespread problems, environmental sustainability—these and just about every other issue you can think of are the subjects of countless simultaneous experiments going on across the country. Voters, residents, and taxpayers need to know what is happening (or not), and what is working (or not), in their school systems, and their city councils, and their state capitals.

It is imperiled for obvious reasons. What has happened to media revenues in general has happened worst, fastest, and hardest to local publications, newspapers most of all.

This is part of the reason Deb Fallows and I have been reporting on local-journalism innovations (and successes) we’ve seen, such as the Report for America initiative I mentioned in June, and the business model behind the last family-owned daily in Mississippi, The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus (and, long before that, the former alt-weekly that has become a leading statewide news source in Vermont, Seven Days, of Burlington).

No one of these models or examples will necessarily apply in other places or circumstances. But any illustration of success is worth noticing, for tips.


This brings us to The Quoddy Tides, the twice-monthly, family-owned and -run newspaper that has a print circulation several times larger than the population of the city where it is based.

The home city is Eastport, Maine, whose library Deb wrote about recently, and which we described in our book, Our Towns. In its heyday as a sardine-canning capital, Eastport had a population of more than 5,000. Now the canneries are gone, and the year-round population is about 1,300, and nearly everyone in town holds a combination of jobs—lobster fishing, seasonal tourist businesses, work at the commercial port or in forestry, small crafts or art studios—to make ends meet. But in this setting, The Quoddy Tides has a paid print circulation of just less than 5,000, and now has more than 50 years of continuous operation. Its editorial and business office is in a white clapboard structure that at various times was a fishing-company office and then a Christian Science church, along the bay front in Eastport’s small but architecturally distinguished downtown. It is run on a shoestring, but it has some 20 contributors and correspondents in the region, and it is full of both articles and ads, and it matters in its community.

Eastport’s downtown, from its pier. The Quoddy Tides office is the small white building to the right. (James Fallows)

Part of The QT’s circulation secret is similar to that of Seven Days, in Vermont: It is aimed at an audience, and market, beyond its immediate hometown base. In addition to news of Eastport, The QT covers that of other down-east Maine towns such as Lubec, Machias, and Calais (pronounced like callous), and adjoining maritime islands and towns in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. It also has a substantial mail circulation, reaching subscribers in 49 states who are originally from the area, or have visited, or feel some interest or connection to it. (South Dakota is the outlier. People of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, c’mon!)

Also, like The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi, the paper’s family ownership means that it can spend its modest resources as it chooses. It is not under external-ownership pressure to meet regular profitability targets, which has sent so many small papers into cycles of cutback and decline.

But when I spoke with the husband-and-wife couple who run the paper, Edward French and Lora Whelan, they emphasized that it was the kind of journalism they provide that has allowed them to survive.


The Quoddy Tides—named for the Passamaquoddy Bay on which Eastport sits, which feeds into the Bay of Fundy—was founded by Edward’s mother, Winifred, in 1968. She and her husband, Rowland, a doctor, had moved to Eastport from Arizona in the early 1950s, and stayed there to raise their family. (“My mother was looking for someplace not quite as hot,” Edward told me in The QT’s office earlier this month. “Coastal Maine qualified.”) Rowland became a leading local doctor, with a clinic now named in his honor. One of Edward’s brothers, Hugh, also lives now in Eastport, where with his wife, Kristin McKinlay, he runs a museum and arts organization called the Tides Institute.

In the late 1960s, as the family’s children were growing, Winifred decided that the community needed a newspaper. A previous one, from the town’s sardine-canning days, had gone out of business in the 1950s. “She had no newspaper experience,” Lora said of her mother-in-law. “But she thought these communities really needed a voice. So she talked to other small newspapers and had correspondence with people all around the country about how she should set this up.” After a year of research, she launched the paper in 1968.

Lora Whelan at work (Courtesy of Lora Whelan)

Edward, then elementary-school age, grew up helping address papers for mail subscribers, and with the page layout. In those days, a fishing boat took article text across the water to a layout shop in Deer Island, Canada, and then another boat would carry the pasted-up pages back to the U.S. for printing.

Edward French at the Quoddy Tides office (Leslie Bowman / the Working Waterfront)

Then and now, the striking characteristic of the paper is its density of local news. The most recent issue, when we visited, was 40 pages long, with many dozens of purely local, information-packed news stories.

For instance, the front page (at right) had five local stories: about the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council’s effort to defend water rights; about limits on sea-urchin fishing (a quickly growing market, mainly for export to Asia); about the impact of new tax preferences, for land conservation, on local tax revenues; a crime story; and one about an academic-freedom dispute at the local Maritime College of Forest Technology. Plus, a picture of a kayaker viewing a Minke whale—of which we saw large numbers in the bay.

The Quoddy Tides’ front page of the August 9, 2019, edition (James Fallows)

In the rest of the paper you have: high-school sports. Commercial shipping schedules and tide tables. Gardening and cooking tips. Religious news. Birth and death notices. Puzzles. Local city-council roundups. A long editorial and letters-to-editors section. Everything.

“I think it’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting,” Edward told me at The QT’s office. “If you keep cutting, there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper. If you want to keep a healthy circulation, you have to make the investment in reporters and providing the news that people can’t find anywhere else.” If there is a “secret” of the paper’s success, he said, it is “that you’re providing information that people can’t find any other place.”

All notes on "Eastport, Maine" >
Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Whatever is wrong with Donald Trump is getting worse. A week ago, it seemed noteworthy that he was canceling a long-planned state visit because an allied government didn’t want to let him “buy Greenland.”

Now: proposals to stop hurricanes with nuclear bombs; turning a G-7 news conference into a late-night cable infomercial for Trump’s own badly struggling golf resort;  “imaginary-friend” discussions with Chinese leaders that the Chinese say never occurred; orders that his officials “build the wall!” with a promise to pardon them for any laws they break in the process; and general megalomania and craziness.

Last week I argued (in “If Trump Were an Airline Pilot”) that if Trump occupied any other important position in public life, responsible figures would already have removed him from the controls. In this case the “responsible figures” are the Vichy Republicans who control the U.S. Senate, which is why nothing has happened to rein Trump in. Not one of these senators will stand up to Trump, even as he is melting down.

A few days ago, readers with military, corporate, and other backgrounds responded to the proposition that a person like Trump would already have been screened out by corporate, military, medical, or other professional systems. Here’s another round in response to that.


CEOs are worse than you think: In the previous post I quoted a reader who said that a man like Trump was par for the course in big public corporations. (“Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”) I said, in response, that it would be good to have a few more examples—apart, say, from Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who was able to con much of the financial and scientific world for a long time.

This reader wrote back to say: You want examples? I’ve got examples! Here is an abridged version of his reply:

I read your challenge regarding examples of CEOs who have destroyed the company and were not fired by the board for whatever reason in the face of incompetence. First, of course, scholarship:

1. Book that discusses this very same phenomenon, as CEOs are chosen for their 'charisma' vs. experience and competence. Searching for a Corporate Savior, The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs  (Rakesh Khurana, Princeton, 2002). In this book there is a discussion about the parameters that boards tend to use for choosing CEOs in the US. I think you'll find some of your examples there.

2. Examples of incompetent CEOs who destroyed or helped destroy their companies after being put on the job. Don't take my word for it, try this list of “15 Worst CEOs in American History.” The criteria of the list:

“Those selected for the list fall into one of two simple categories - those who ruined the companies completely while they served as sitting CEOs and those who did severe damage from which their firms could never possibly recover.”...

3. Want more current examples. Sure: Take a look at “Worst CEOs of 2018.” ...


We can talk about incompetence in another sense: Are they building a company that works for the world at large, or are they building a company to feed their egos?

You may say, it doesn't matter if they do, what matters is the result. However, I think you'll find that, if we begin to discuss the ethics of owning and managing a business, you quickly get to the 'responsibility' moment, where your responsibility is to your employees, your environment, your country, and your shareholders. In that order.

The idea that shareholders must always come first has always been ridiculous and only a small mind and small heart could accept that (cue the usual Republican assessments - take your examples from people like Mitch McConnell, a man who does not understand what made the US great and only cares about getting what he wants or what he thinks he wanted when he was 30 years younger.) Take your example as Bezos. Once you have made more money than God, what's the point of not paying your employees a living wage?...

Hope you are not counting on the genius of American Business leadership to save the country from its own present course.

To reassure the reader on the final point, I’m not looking for a CEO savior. (The main theme of the recent work that I’ve been doing with my wife, Deb Fallows, is that communities need to be their own saviors.) My point was simply: Corporate oversight, however flawed, has seemed to be more effective than what we’re getting at the moment out of the U.S. Senate.

Which leads me to …


Actually, CEOs are way better than you think! A reader whom I’ve known for a long time, and whose work involves corporate governance and CEO-search processes, agrees with the original point, and disagrees with the reader above.

My friend writes:

I’d like to offer a response to the response you received [from the reader quoted above] regarding CEO’s of public companies and the Board’s judgement on their fitness to serve (“The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power.”)...

The responder’s comments are contrary to my personal experience.  For more two decades I was a Senior Partner and the Co-Leader of the [particular business area] Practice at one of the top four international retained executive search firms. My search practice was exclusively focused on C-level executive positions, not infrequently searches for CEO replacement.  In a majority of my executive searches, my client was the Board of Directors.

While the typical CEO search engagement was initiated to replace the planned retirement, often a year or more in advance, I can think of at least half a dozen searches to replace CEOs whose behavior was not only harmful to the business interests of the enterprise, but also offensive to the values of the company.

These were cases of Trump-like behavior.  This could be a painful process for the Board, particularly when the CEO was also a Founder who had overseen the selection of Board Directors over the course of many years.

I can think of four examples of CEO behavior so egregious that the Board recognized its fiduciary duty to shareholders to dismiss and the replace the CEO.  While I won’t name the companies involved, I will say that all were Fortune 100 corporations, two investor-owned systems, a specialty manufacturer, and one of the largest [insurance-related firms].  These executive searches were conducted in strictest confidence, and only the Board was aware that the CEO was to be replaced.  In contrast to your respondent’s characterization of “the medieval level at which corporate management is done,” it was clear to me and my Search Firm that in these instances the Boards acted firmly, ethically, and in the interest not only of shareholders but also of the corporation’s management and employees.


I will acknowledge that there has been a growing tendency for CEOs to recruit compliant Board Directors and undermine their independence, but I will also observe that based on many years’ experience working very closely with many of the most senior healthcare executives that the best CEOs seek strong and independent Directors on their corporate Boards.  The best CEOs of the most successful large public companies use their Directors as an extension and enhancement of management talent, and they defer to their Directors when making certain critical decisions regarding the values of the enterprise and its strategic direction.

Again, in my experience, an effective Board would not long tolerate capricious leadership, and certainly would not hesitate to act to dismiss a CEO whose personal behavior violated ethical standards, even if the enterprise was doing well.

One final note: your respondent asserts, “Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”  I demur.  With the exception of the occasional Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), Ken Lay (Enron), or Rick Scott (Columbia HCA) – essentially Founders as well as CEOs – my personal experience and close acquaintance with a fair number of top tier executives and Board Directors is that it takes exceptional intelligence, leadership talent, and steady judgement to lead an organization as complex as a Fortune 100 corporation.  

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The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine
The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art

Andrew Carnegie was the force of Gilded Age philanthropy behind the building of public libraries. Along with other recognizable names who made their fortune in the late 1800s and early 1900s—Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Morgan, Stanford, Harriman, Heinz—Carnegie’s influence endures today largely because of the way he gave away the vast fortune he amassed.

For about 35 years beginning in 1883, Carnegie donated money from his steelmaking empire (which became U.S. Steel) to build nearly 1,700 libraries around the country and another 800 around other parts of the world. He was careful about his “formula” for agreeing to construct the commanding, elegant buildings, a formula whose elements remain fundamental in the basic operations and democratic spirit of public libraries today. The libraries were required, among other things, to support staff and maintenance, to gather at least some of their funding from public sources, and to be open and free to the public to use.

It has been stunning to see the physical and spiritual legacy of Carnegie libraries—large and small—as we have visited more than 50 towns around the country for our Our Towns reporting project. It has been inspiring to bear witness to how libraries have evolved from the simple idea of serving the wants and needs of the public to becoming crucial, essential public institutions of communities in this modern era.

Around the turn of the 20th century in Columbus, Ohio, an audacious city librarian named John Pugh hopped the train for New York to knock on Carnegie’s door, and—appealing to their shared Celtic background— charmed Carnegie into donating $200,000 for the construction of the imposing granite and marble main library in downtown Columbus. Today the building has been newly renovated and expanded, retaining its original main building and entry, where the words OPEN TO ALL are carved in granite over the door. From the library’s main reading room, you can look out the two-story glass windows onto the seven acres of topiary park with more than 200 different types of trees.

The Carnegie Center for the Arts in Dodge City, Kansas (Courtesy of the Carnegie Center for the Arts)

In Dodge City, Kansas, a small but distinguished group of residents, inspired by the town’s women’s club, appealed to Carnegie in 1905 for support to build their public library, as he had previously done for five other towns in Kansas. He gave them $7,500, and they agreed to ante 10 percent of that sum annually to maintain it. The town’s population grew and eventually outgrew the small library. Today it is home to the Carnegie Center for the Arts.

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Donald Trump after arriving in France this weekend
Donald Trump after arriving in France this weekend Reuters

Three days ago I argued that if Donald Trump were in any consequential job other than the one he now occupies—surgeon, military commander, head of a private organization or public company, airline pilot—he would already have been removed.  A sampling of reader response:

The military would have responded. One reader writes:

I am retired military officer and there IS a significant part of his behavior that should generate a change of command without a parade.

The UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] is very clear about anyone in the chain of command influencing ongoing military law procedures. If ANY military officer would have done what this man did concerning Eddie Gallagher they would have been removed from their position without hesitation. [JF note: Gallagher was the Navy SEAL who was tried for murder, on allegations he stabbed a captive prisoner to death. After he was acquitted, Trump publicly took credit for helping get him off. More here.]

My God, what have we done.


Also, school systems. Another reader adds:

He would be unemployable in every school district in America.

We elected a president who couldn’t even be a substitute teacher.


But maybe not in corporations? From another reader:

In your piece from 22 August, you mentioned:

“The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far in a large public corporation.)”

I respectfully disagree. One thing that is almost never discussed in the US is the medieval level at which corporate management is done. It is a fiefdom where the CEO is the chosen one to do as he wishes for as long as he can.

Trump would have risen to the top of many a corporation looking for a 'savior' (isn't that what we call the CEOs who will fix a company in trouble?)

Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump. They do a better job of hiding it, and they make sure that their successors get blamed for their messes.

I’ll accept the reader’s argument that some corporate CEOs may be no more knowledgeable or competent than Trump—though I’d like to hear a specific example. (Maybe Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos? On the other hand, even today’s flawed corporate-governance system eventually caught up with her.)

I disagree that the board of a public corporation would have indefinitely put up with what the world has recently seen from such a leader, in the way that the GOP majority in the Senate—the functional equivalent of a corporation’s board—puts up with Trump.


The new ‘Flight 93’ A reader refers to the popular right-wing concept that the 2016 presidential election was a civic version of United Flight 93, from September 11, 2001. On that flight, passengers recognized that the plane had been taken over by terrorists, and they stormed the cockpit to bring the plane crashing to the ground rather than allowing it to become a flying bomb detonated in Washington.

The idea that 2016 was the “Flight 93 Election” became shorthand for a “by any means necessary!” approach to Donald Trump: Yeah, he has his problems (just like crashing a plane into the ground has its problems), but the alternative is even worse.

The reader writes:

Whether purposely or not, your piece echoes and counterweights the pernicious metaphor of The Flight 93 Election by Micheal Anton.

It was helpful to be reminded that most institutions have procedures in place for removal of a presiding officer who is unfit for duty.  


Speaking of the military, maybe ‘The Caine Mutiny’ is not the right model. In my post I likened Donald Trump’s current bearing to that of Philip Queeg, in Herman Wouk’s famed 1950s novel The Caine Mutiny and the subsequent movie.

Several readers wrote to note a complication with that comparison. In specific, while many people agreed with the similarities between Trump’s behavior and Queeg’s, several pointed out that the moral Herman Wouk seemed to draw from his story worked against the point I was trying to make.

Here’s a sample letter. For those not familiar with the book or all the characters mentioned, the central point is that Wouk ended the book being more sympathetic to his manifestly deranged main character, Captain Queeg, and critical of those who removed him from command. The reader says:

I have a quibble with your literary analysis.

My Dad gave me a tattered copy of The Caine Mutiny when I was in eight grade. It’s a great coming of age story. As I have become a graying and nondescript adult, as Willie Keith [one of the complicated protagonists] is described in the final pages, I appreciate Keith’s story more and more.

But it seems to me that at the end of the book, the narrative itself and important characters within it (not just Keith but Greenwald and even Keggs) conclude that Queeg should NOT have been relieved.

Greenwald, from a position of moral authority, credits Queeg with doing what was necessary to protect the country from fascism while the rest of them trained up for war, and regrets what he sees as his own (necessary) role in Queeg’s humiliation. Keith accepts and agrees with the official Navy reprimand he receives for his role in the relief.

Keggs, now a captain himself, wonders how they got off the hook. The consensus opinion at the end of the book is that Keefer (and of course the fascists) were the true villains, and that the Navy that put Queeg in command of a DMS [destroyer mine sweeper] generally knows what it’s doing.

I loved everything else about the article. But let’s not let Trump off the hook the way Herman Wouk let Queeg off the hook.

Several other readers suggested a better (if less famous) comparison: the 1995 movie Crimson Tide, set aboard a nuclear-missile submarine, in which an executive officer played by Denzel Washington stands up to a captain played by Gene Hackman and finally (and correctly) relieves him of command.


Does naming a problem matter? I explained in my original post why I had long resisted “medicalizing” Trump’s aberrant behavior — that is, linking his excesses to some possible underlying disorder, rather than just noting them on their own. A mental-health professional writes to disagree:

I have to disagree on your belief that it wouldn't matter to anyone what his diagnosis is.

We have a unique situation here in which his most likely diagnosis would distress many if they truly understood what the term actually means and how we can draw a reasonable conclusion that we know his provisional diagnosis without ever seeing him.

As a Psychiatric Social Worker who has worked in forensic mental health, I know that it is well established that at least 1% of the population does not develop a conscience. They don't get angry, or stop caring, they simply lack to capacity to feel guilt, empathy, or grief. In many cases, this appears tied to brain abnormalities….

There are different terms and models for assessing such a person. Malignant Narcissism has been openly mentioned. Narcissistic Sociopath is common in pop culture. I prefer the term Psychopathy which is the model I am most familiar.

By definition, such a person is unfit for office (even if they lack the traits of the small subsection who become serial killers). I have to believe that the majority of the Republicans in Congress would care if they understood they are enabling a psychopath and the danger that represents to our country.

As a Social Worker, I am aware there are times when community safety and our duty to humankind outweigh the so-called
"Goldwater Rule" [JF note: this is the informal bar on commenting on people a mental-health professional has not examined personally]. This is spelled out in our NASW Code of Ethics and are reasons for the Tarasoff ruling and the laws on reporting suspected child abuse. [JF note: the Tarasoff case involved professionals’ responsibility to warn people who might be victims of a mentally ill patient’s behavior].

Imagine a professional who has the special training and has spent the time familiarizing themselves with the data on Trump trying to defend their decision to stay silent ten years from now. "Well, I knew that Trump might be a Psychopath, but you know, professional ethics."…

FBI agents are trained in the many ways such a person gives themselves away, but even a well-educated lay person can recognize that we have a profoundly mental disturbed man in the White House.


More on why a diagnosis matters. From another reader:

One of the characteristics of NPD [narcissistic personality disorder, whose list of symptoms closely resembles daily reports from the Trump White House] is that when meeting obstructions to the patient's narcissism, there is a progression from attempting to charm, to bullying, to outright paranoia; as you note, we re seeing that progression.

I agree the medicalizing our observations has no particular effect.  Sufficient to say that our President is decompensating, getting crazier and crazier.


We thought democracy would spare us. From another reader:

Toward the end of today's piece you write:

"There are two exceptions. One is a purely family-run business, like the firm in which Trump spent his entire previous career. And the other is the U.S. presidency, where he will remain, despite more and more-manifest Queeg-like  unfitness, as long as the GOP Senate stands with him."

I can't help but think of the long history of hereditary monarchs and Popes who were not only utterly unfit to rule, but were unfit in ways that were clearly visible to everybody around them. Some of them were mere toddlers when they acceded to the throne.

I think that in the US, after tossing out one of those monarchs, we've convinced ourselves that our system just wouldn't allow this to happen. We love democracy so much that we can't conceive of the idea that a quarter of our country would willingly make the effort to walk into a polling booth and sign over power to someone like this, and that enough of the rest of us would not see it as such a dire emergency that they wouldn't bother to vote against him.

It feels like a step backwards not just for the Presidency (which has seen its fair share of xenophobic, incompetent, and corrupt occupants), but for a world in general that seemed like it had moved on from an obviously flawed method of entrusting people with power.


Thanks to the readers, and a final point I can’t make often enough.

If a renegade CEO were jeopardizing a public corporation’s future, the board of directors would finally act.

If a renegade pilot threatened the safety of passengers, an airline’s management — or the regulators from the FAA — would feel legally obliged to act.

Same for a renegade doctor, or teacher, or most other officials. The scandal of some police agencies, and of some Catholic (and other) hierarchies, is their failure to act as the evidence mounted up.

The body that could act in the public interest in this case is the U.S. Senate. As explained in the original piece, any effort to rein in Trump, or to remove him from command, finally rests on support from the 45 men and 8 women who make up the current Republican majority in the Senate. Unlike the other 330 million or so Americans, those 53 individuals — the people whose names are listed here —  could do something directly. And they won’t.

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Donald Trump
Tasos Katopodis / Reuters

Through the 2016 campaign, I posted a series called “Trump Time Capsule” in this space. The idea was to record, in real time, what was known about Donald Trump’s fitness for office—and to do so not when people were looking back on our era but while the Republican Party was deciding whether to line up behind him and voters were preparing to make their choice.

The series reached 152 installments by election day. I argued that even then there was no doubt of Trump’s mental, emotional, civic, and ethical unfitness for national leadership. If you’re hazy on the details, the series is (once again) here.

That background has equipped me to view Trump’s performance in office as consistently shocking but rarely surprising. He lied on the campaign trail, and he lies in office. He insulted women, minorities, “the other” as a candidate, and he does it as a president. He led “lock her up!” cheers at the Republican National Convention and he smiles at “send them back!” cheers now. He did not know how the “nuclear triad” worked then, and he does not know how tariffs work now. He flared at perceived personal slights when they came from Senator John McCain, and he does so when they come from the Prime Minister of Denmark. He is who he was.

The Atlantic editorial staff, in a project I played no part in, reached a similar conclusion. Its editorial urging a vote against Trump was obviously written before the election but stands up well three years later:

He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent


The one thing I avoided in that Time Capsule series was “medicalizing” Trump’s personality and behavior. That is, moving from description of his behavior to speculation about its cause. Was Trump’s abysmal ignorance—“Most people don’t know President Lincoln was a Republican!”—a sign of dementia, or of some other cognitive decline? Or was it just more evidence that he had never read a book? Was his braggadocio and self-centeredness a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder? (Whose symptoms include “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” and “a sense of entitlement and require[s] constant, excessive admiration.”) Or just that he is an entitled jerk? On these and other points I didn’t, and don’t, know.

Like many people in the journalistic world, I received a steady stream of mail from mental-health professionals arguing for the “medicalized” approach. Several times I mentioned the parallel between Trump’s behavior and the check-list symptoms of narcissism. But I steered away from “this man is sick”—naming the cause rather than listing the signs—for two reasons.

The minor reason was the medical-world taboo against public speculation about people a doctor had not examined personally. There is a Catch-22 circularity to this stricture (which dates to the Goldwater-LBJ race in 1964). Doctors who have not treated a patient can’t say anything about the patient’s condition, because that would be “irresponsible”—but neither can doctors who have, because they’d be violating confidences.

Also, a flat ban on at-a-distance diagnosis doesn’t really meet the common-sense test. Medical professionals have spent decades observing symptoms, syndromes, and more-or-less probable explanations for behavior. We take it for granted that an ex-quarterback like Tony Romo can look at an offensive lineup just before the snap and say, “This is going to be a screen pass.” But it’s considered a wild overstep for a doctor or therapist to reach conclusions based on hundreds of hours of exposure to Trump on TV.

My dad was a small-town internist and diagnostician. Back in the 1990s he saw someone I knew, on a TV interview show, and he called me to say: “I think your friend has [a neurological disease]. He should have it checked out, if he hasn’t already.” It was because my dad had seen a certain pattern—of expression, and movement, and facial detail—so many times in the past, that he saw familiar signs, and knew from experience what the cause usually was. (He was right in this case.) Similarly, he could walk down the street, or through an airline terminal, and tell by people’s gait or breathing patterns who needed to have knee or hip surgery, who had just had that surgery, who was starting to have heart problems, et cetera. (I avoided asking him what he was observing about me.)

Recognizing patterns is the heart of most professional skills, and mental health professionals usually know less about an individual patient than all of us now know about Donald Trump. And on that basis, Dr. Bandy Lee of Yale and others associated with the World Mental Health Coalition have been sounding the alarm about Trump’s mental state (including with a special analysis of the Mueller report). Another organization of mental health professionals is the “Duty to Warn” movement.

But the diagnosis-at-a-distance issue wasn’t the real reason I avoided “medicalization.” The main reason I didn’t go down this road was my assessment that it wouldn’t make a difference. People who opposed Donald Trump already opposed him, and didn’t need some medical hypothesis to dislike his behavior. And people who supported him had already shown that they would continue to swallow anything, from “Grab ‘em by … ”  to “I like people who weren’t captured.” The Vichy Republicans of the campaign dutifully lined up behind the man they had denounced during the primaries, and the Republicans of the Senate have followed in that tradition.


But now we’ve had something we didn’t see so clearly during the campaign. These are episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting: An actually consequential rift with a small but important NATO ally, arising from the idea that the U.S. would “buy Greenland.” Trump’s self-description as “the Chosen One,” and his embrace of a supporter’s description of him as the “second coming of God” and the “King of Israel.” His logorrhea, drift, and fantastical claims in public rallies, and his flashes of belligerence at the slightest challenge in question sessions on the White House lawn. His utter lack of affect or empathy when personally meeting the most recent shooting victims, in Dayton and El Paso. His reduction of any event, whatsoever, into what people are saying about him.

Obviously I have no standing to say what medical pattern we are seeing, and where exactly it might lead. But just from life I know this:

  • If an airline learned that a pilot was talking publicly about being “the Chosen One” or “the King of Israel” (or Scotland or whatever), the airline would be looking carefully into whether this person should be in the cockpit.
  • If a hospital had a senior surgeon behaving as Trump now does, other doctors and nurses would be talking with administrators and lawyers before giving that surgeon the scalpel again.
  • If a public company knew that a CEO was making costly strategic decisions on personal impulse or from personal vanity or slight, and was doing so more and more frequently, the board would be starting to act. (See: Uber, management history of.)
  • If a university, museum, or other public institution had a leader who routinely insulted large parts of its constituency—racial or religious minorities, immigrants or international allies, women—the board would be starting to act.
  • If the U.S. Navy knew that one of its commanders was routinely lying about important operational details, plus lashing out under criticism, plus talking in “Chosen One” terms, the Navy would not want that person in charge of, say, a nuclear-missile submarine. (See: The Queeg saga in The Caine Mutiny, which would make ideal late-summer reading or viewing for members of the White House staff.)

Yet now such a  person is in charge not of one nuclear-missile submarine but all of them—and the bombers and ICBMs, and diplomatic military agreements, and the countless other ramifications of executive power.

If Donald Trump were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role. The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far in a large public corporation.) The chain-of-command in the Navy or at an airline or in the hospital would at least call a time-out, and check his fitness, before putting him back on the bridge, or in the cockpit, or in the operating room. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far as a military officer, or a pilot, or a doctor.)

There are two exceptions. One is a purely family-run business, like the firm in which Trump spent his entire previous career. And the other is the U.S. presidency, where he will remain, despite more and more-manifest Queeg-like  unfitness, as long as the GOP Senate stands with him.

(Why the Senate? Because the two constitutional means for removing a president, impeachment and the 25th Amendment, both ultimately require two thirds support from the Senate. Under the 25th Amendment, a majority of the Cabinet can remove a president—but if the president disagrees, he can retain the office unless two thirds of both the House and Senate vote against him, an even tougher standard than with impeachment. Once again it all comes back to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)

Donald Trump is who we knew him to be. But now he’s worse. The GOP Senate continues to show us what it is.

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The view from our plane this week, headed to Maine
The view from our plane this week, headed to Maine Deborah Fallows

We were flying away from Washington D.C. again, leaving the Sturm und Drang of our hometown in early August for a point nearly as far east on the U.S. map as one can get. It is “Down East,” in the vernacular of Maine, and the town of Eastport, where residents say the sun first rises over the United States, as does the moon, which gets far too little attention.

James Fallows, banking the Steel Edition Cirrus SR-22 en route to Eastport (Deborah Fallows)

In Eastport, it is difficult to rise before the fishermen do; they are often out by dawn, returning with a catch before most of us see the sun, and then they head to the local Waco Diner, which is ready for them with bacon and coffee.

Close in to shore this morning, seagulls cry back and forth to each other. Winches lower lobster traps onto boats for setting in the bay. A few townspeople arrive at the new town pier in pickups stocked with their fishing gear. They cast their lines some six feet down from the pier to the water at high tide, and as much as 25 at low tide. The tidal difference is greatest when the moon is full, as it is now. I watched the fishermen catching mackerel, smelt, and herring for their dinner tables.

The port’s pilot boat glides silently offshore; I know a big ship is scheduled to arrive at the port this week, maybe like the Industrial Ruby, which came and went last week, loaded up with wood pulp for China. It’s a Dutch-built and -owned ship, registered in Liberia, with Russian and Ukrainian officers and a Filipino crew.

Looking at the piers of Eastport (Deborah Fallows)

Many elements in Eastport help you touch the whole world, in a hugely romantic way rather than the fearing and dark way in which many elements in our hometown touch the world. Ships heading for China; evening flights departing the east coast for early arrivals in London or maybe Paris, their lights flickering and their huge jet engines barely whispering in our ears.

Canada is right across the water; from Eastport, you see the island of Campobello, where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt spent summers with their family. Within a few days in August of 1921, FDR contracted a sudden series of symptoms that were finally diagnosed as polio. Eventually, he was ferried across the water to Eastport, and taken by train to New York. His dark-red house with the dark-green roof, surprisingly comfortably rambling, still stands at the top of lawns that slope down to the water. His small sailboat sits dry on the lawn. The trains have long since gone away.

Downtown Eastport this week, from its pier (James Fallows)

On land, workers are hammering at Eastport’s 1887 Masonic Block, owned by the Tides Institute, replacing the crumbling wood beams with monstrous steel ones to keep the building standing for two centuries more, at least. It’s worth the trouble to be sure that the west side of Water Street remains solid with its row of red brick buildings.

New steel beams going into the Masonic Block (Deborah Fallows)

Just uphill is the Peavey Memorial Library, which desperately needs some attention like the Masonic Block is getting so that more of Peavey’s bricks don’t crumble. Like many other public libraries, they are looking every which way to find the funds for this. There was a music festival behind the library all weekend, free but for library donations. There’s a thermometer drawn on a poster out front marking donations rising like degrees, and according to the Quoddy Tides, Eastport’s biweekly paper, a grant writer from Bangor, Maine, has been hired to seek money from outside Eastport.

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The science building at Central Oregon Community College, in Bend, Oregon
The science building at Central Oregon Community College, in Bend, Oregon James Fallows / The Atlantic

Last week I reported on a conference of community-college leaders that Deb Fallows and I attended in Michigan, and about some of the reasons we’ve come to believe that community colleges are so important to America’s economic and civic future.

Readers weighed in with their experiences and views. First, from a reader in Texas:

Unless I missed it, I think you missed one of the additional key assets of community college, at least here in my state. It is a potential GATEWAY.

Neither of our kids were well positioned for college I am ashamed to admit. Our son thankfully went onto [a local community college] from high school graduation. His sister went onto a state college in Texas from high school.

Our son struggled for a few years to gain his academic footing and direction. Our daughter outgrew her original college and moved onto [a state university in Texas], and then to graduation at [another well-known university].

Our son eventually went from community college to graduate from a state university, Cum Laude. None of this would have happened were it not for Texas’s policy on easy transition between community college and state college/university educational institutions once you are in the system and meeting academic standards. And, I would add, automatic acceptance of the top 10% of high school graduating classes.

I have no idea how commonplace this arrangement is across the country, but I have to applaud Texas for this educational feature. Not everybody is ready at HS graduation for a university environment. That should not limit their life’s potential. I hope other states do the same.

I agree with the reader that “portability” of credits through different levels of a public higher-ed system is an important opportunity-enhancing feature. Here’s a detailed example of how one state, California, has tried to ease the process: It has a site called assist.org, which lets students see which credits are transferable from one California public higher-ed institution to another, under which set of rules. (For instance: The site would let you specify that you’d attended San Bernardino Valley College and were interested in the California State University at San Bernardino or the University of California at Riverside. It would then list which credits for which specific courses could be transferred.)

The reader in Texas adds:

Failure at a 4 year university is indelible in GPA/class rank. I still remember the introductory meeting and the “look to the left, look to the right” speech when I started in the 1960s at [a technology university in the Northeast]. Seemed like we had slipped down to Quantico when I walked between meetings. It also appeared to be a badge of honor of sorts for the school.

Today many of these schools still fail about half the entering freshmen. That is not a positive performance metric. As I stated, our son initially floundered some at community college. That was erased when he transferred to the state university.

I think there is in many places a perception that this is a lower economic class issue. Not true in our family. Worth highlighting.


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The campus of Dodge City Community College, in western Kansas
The campus of Dodge City Community College, in western Kansas James Fallows / The Atlantic

America is in the middle of another news emergency, about crises that are genuinely important. But meanwhile, other aspects of public and private life grind on, and because they will matter so much in the long run, they deserve more attention than the permanent-emergency news culture usually allows for. Like many other entries in this series, today’s is an intentionally off-news item about some of these developments that will help determine the news of the future.

At the moment I have in mind two institutions that are rarely in the headlines but deserve to be featured in American discussions of prospects for a better economic and civic future.

One is, of course, America’s network of libraries, as Deb Fallows has discussed over the years. She wrote about them in the print magazine, in our book Our Towns, and in recent posts like this from Brownsville, Texas, and this from New York.

The other is the constellation of 1,000-plus public community colleges across the country. Three years ago in the magazine I made the case that a reliable sign of civic progress was whether a city took its community college seriously:

Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college.

Just about every world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor-replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential-housing patterns, the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools.

Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a connection to high-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage …

In travels since then, Deb and I have seen more examples of community colleges acting as anchors for a city or region—for instance, with the “Communiversity” that has made such a difference in eastern Mississippi, or the innovative Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, Virginia. (This IALR in Danville is neither a normal research university nor a community college but approximates some functions of each, and works with nearby two- and four-year institutions.) Based on what we’ve seen, I would argue that while every branch of American education is always “important,” from preschool and K–12 to the most intense research universities, community colleges really are the crucial institutions of this economic and political moment. That is because:

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