Washington, D.C. (April 18, 2017)—"Alec Baldwin has become America's deflator in chief, a weekly pinprick in Trump’s balloon,” writes Chris Jones in The Atlantic's May issue, online in full today. The cover story, “Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump's Skin,” explores comedy, tragedy, and satire in our era of political chaos. Jones, a longtime magazine writer, obtained rare behind-the-scenes access to Saturday Night Live, spending a week on set with Baldwin as he prepared to host the show for a record 17th time—and chronicling his reluctant transformation into his wig-clad, spray-tanned presidential persona.
Also in the magazine: Caitlin Flanagan on the conservative backlash being created by late-night comedy; David Frum on Trump’s “teeth-grindedly stupid” plan to end Europe; and Franklin Foer on how Mexico could exact revenge on the U.S. by playing its “China card.” The May issue also includes the annual Money Report, with articles about how online shopping dupes us all and how Walmart is tricking people into saving money.
The full issue is online today, April 18, 2017, at TheAtlantic.com and will be on newsstands this week. Several pieces are detailed below.
COVER & FEATURES:
Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin: Since that first appearance of Alec Baldwin–as–Donald Trump debating Kate McKinnon–as– Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live last fall, Baldwin has become a staple of the show, propelling SNL to its most-watched season since 1993. Writer Chris Jones is witness to Baldwin’s transformation, spending a week on set as he prepared to host the show for a record 17th time. His transformation is a reluctant one, because Baldwin says his Trump character “lives on a parallel track with something very regrettable … I never really thought we’d have to go this far, but we do have to have these periodic shocks to the system to remind people again about their role in the process.” Along the way, Jones and Baldwin debate the role of satire and politics, particularly in troubled times. In modern America, we have long taken for granted the idea that our leaders should be able to laugh at themselves. But Trump doesn’t seem able to do that, and Baldwin has become our deflater in chief, a weekly pinprick in the president’s balloon. “If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin tells Jones. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”
How Late-Night Comedy Alienated Conservatives, Made Liberals Smug, and Fueled the Rise of Trump: Late-night entertainers can hardly be expected to ignore the comedic bounty with which Trump has blessed them; but Caitlin Flanagan argues that they have become an unintended but powerful form of propaganda for conservatives. “No wonder so many of Trump’s followers are inclined to believe only the things that he or his spokespeople tell them directly,” she writes: ”Everyone else on the tube thinks they’re a bunch of Oxy-snorting half-wits who divide their time between retweeting Alex Jones fantasies and ironing out their Klan hoods.”
Mexico’s Revenge: President Trump ran a campaign propelled by inflammatory rhetoric toward Mexico, but now America’s southern neighbor could exact its own revenge, pulling a geopolitical lever that could hurt the U.S. very badly. Mexico could align itself with America’s greatest competitor—China. The alarm this would set off is just the sort of thing some Mexicans would now like to provoke. While a tighter Chinese–Mexican relationship would fly in the face of recent economic history, Franklin Foer writes that Trump may have already inadvertently laid the groundwork for this new dynamic. The administration’s hard-line immigration policies could also yield a “grim bonanza” of other consequences. Foer warns: “Unwinding [the U.S.–Mexico] relationship would be ugly and painful, a strategic blunder of the highest order, a gift to America’s enemies, a gaping vulnerability for the homeland that Donald Trump professes to protect, a very messy divorce.”
FROM THE MONEY REPORT:
How Online Shopping Makes Suckers of Us All: Our ability to know the price of anything, anytime, anywhere has given consumers so much power that retailers are now staring back through the screen. They are comparison shopping us. Jerry Useem goes behind sellers’ now-routine experiments to “find the right price”—that is, the one that will extract the most money from buyers, which, as any savvy online shopper knows, can change by the day or even the hour. In the new world order, prices are never “set” to begin with, having been replaced by something that more closely resembles high-frequency trading on Wall Street. Will you play more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the exurbs? The answers: most likely, and yes. This leads Useem to ask a critical question: “Could the internet, whose transparency was supposed to empower consumers, be doing the opposite?”
How to Trick People Into Saving Money: Walmart’s MoneyCard Vault is a curious, possibly ingenious, effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts through a prepaid card by offering cash incentives for saving. The MoneyCard Vault, and prepaid cards like it, is squarely aimed at the 67 million American who are “unbanked or underbanked”—a massive group that financial innovators have long ignored, yet could arguably benefit from innovation the most. Rob Walker writes that Walmart’s strategy to offer a large number of frequent payouts to encourage saving plays to instincts to value short-term possibilities higher than long-term gains. A shot at $25 now captures attention in a way that interest earned over years does not. Walmart tells Walker “there was no commercial motive” to help people save. But Walker writes, “Walmart has a real incentive to become the place customers think of when they think of their financial future … That access keeps them loyal to Walmart, and keeps them coming back to its stores.” If people buy what they need, or want, while there—well, that’s business.
Geopolitics: The Plan to End Europe: According to David Frum, the drama of Team Trump’s strategic revolution in U.S. foreign policy—elevating Russia to a preferred partner—cannot be overstated. Instead of exporting security, the U.S. is suddenly exporting uncertainty. Germans in particular are confronted with the choice of depending on their own strength or relying on an increasingly unreliable protector. In turn, the rest of the Continent could find itself facing an old question: how to live with a Germany that is too rich and strong to be restrained by its neighbors, but not rich or strong enough to protect them. Frum writes that the European Union is threatened now “not by an enemy, but by the narrow-minded, shortsighted bullying of an accidental and unfit American president. Will the story really end this way? … It all seems not only heartrendingly sad, but also teeth-grindingly stupid.”
Tech: Apps for Refugees: Amid the overwhelming challenges presented by the global refugee crisis, the tech sector has mobilized in the way it knows best: by developing accessible smartphone apps and other tools to help refugees gather crucial information, reconnect with lost relatives, and establish a legal identity in new countries. Apps like InfoAid provide reliable and up-to-date information on everything from train schedules to the safety of tap water. Basil Leaf Technologies has been at work on DxtER, an app that will use artificial intelligence to diagnose dozens of medical conditions on the spot for those living in refugee camps. And organizations like Refunite have reconnected tens of thousands of family members through mobile platforms.
Sketch: Golden State Warrior: California’s new attorney general, Xavier Becerra is in many respects a photo negative of Trump: genial and steady, disciplined and studious. Also unlike Trump, he has spent decades in the political trenches. He appears to enjoy a good political scrap, but he knows how to argue without losing his cool and how to attack without becoming unpleasant. At times, he seems to practically be daring the president to come at California. After spending time with Becerra in Fresno, Michelle Cottle writes that his new job carries considerable risks. But the potential rewards are also considerable: If he succeeds in derailing at least some of the president’s policies, while making others politically costly, Becerra could find himself a Democratic hero.
Study of Studies: Puppy Love: Pet spending is on the rise. Last year, Americans spent an estimated $63 billion on their furry family members, according to this month’s Study of Studies. And that’s true even for those who don’t have much money: Millennials are 30 percent more likely than those in other age groups to buy premium pet food. When it comes to health care, spending for pets and humans have closely tracked each other in recent decades. But the investment may be saving us money in the long run. A study of German and Australian health care found that people who were pet owners for at least five years went to the doctor less than others, saving their countries billions.
This month’s Big Question asks: What was the most significant environmental catastrophe of all time? Answers from environmentalists, academics, and writers include Deepwater Horizon, the Dust Bowl, and World War II, while others say the worst is yet to come.
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