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- 08/13/18--03:01: _Jim Limber Tells Wh...
- 08/13/18--03:01: _Democrats Are Takin...
- 08/13/18--09:17: _Naipaul and the World
- 08/13/18--11:01: _Is Tesla for Real?
- 08/13/18--12:52: _The Democrats’ Real...
- 08/14/18--03:00: _How Scientists Disc...
- 08/14/18--03:00: _The 30-Year Manhunt...
- 08/14/18--03:00: _How an Environmenta...
- 08/14/18--03:01: _Virgil, Hey
- 08/14/18--04:05: _The British Museum’...
- 08/14/18--09:36: _Viral Ads Don’t Gua...
- 08/14/18--11:11: _A New Golden Age fo...
- 08/15/18--03:00: _TV’s True Crime Voy...
- 08/15/18--03:00: _What Democrats Shou...
- 08/15/18--03:00: _When a Young Trump ...
- 08/15/18--03:00: _What France Means W...
- 08/15/18--11:19: _How to Cure Corpora...
- 08/16/18--03:00: _Moments Like This
- 08/16/18--03:01: _The New Republic Se...
- 08/16/18--03:01: _Don’t Abolish ICE
- 08/13/18--03:01: Jim Limber Tells What He Knows About Heaven
- 08/13/18--03:01: Democrats Are Taking Latino Voters for Granted
- 08/13/18--09:17: Naipaul and the World
- 08/13/18--11:01: Is Tesla for Real?
- 08/13/18--12:52: The Democrats’ Real Pelosi Problem Is After the Midterms
- 08/14/18--03:00: How Scientists Discovered Extra Steps in Evolution
- 08/14/18--03:00: The 30-Year Manhunt for China’s Most Elusive Serial Killer
- 08/14/18--03:00: How an Environmental Catastrophe Could Decide Florida’s Senate Race
- 08/14/18--03:01: Virgil, Hey
- 08/14/18--04:05: The British Museum’s “Looting” Problem
- 08/14/18--09:36: Viral Ads Don’t Guarantee Victory
- 08/14/18--11:11: A New Golden Age for Trophy Hunters
- 08/15/18--03:00: TV’s True Crime Voyeurism Reaches Its Crude End
- 08/15/18--03:00: What Democrats Should Really Ask Brett Kavanaugh
- When you clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski, did you witness any conduct by the judge or by any other employees for the court that could be described as sexual harassment? Did anyone ever describe incidents of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other inappropriate behavior by him or other employees of the court to you?
- While working in the office of the independent counsel, in private legal practice, or in the White House, did you witness what could be described as sexual harassment or hear allegations from coworkers of inappropriate behavior from any other employees?
- Since joining the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, have you witnessed sexual harassment or been made aware of incidents that could be described as sexual harassment among employees of the federal judiciary?
- There have been debates about how best to handle sexual harassment within the federal judiciary since Kozinski stepped down. As a federal judge yourself, what steps could and should the courts take to prevent and punish it?
- You led the three-year investigation into the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster. Why did your office investigate Foster’s death after multiple other inquiries had already ruled it a suicide? Why did your investigation into Foster’s suicide take three years to complete when other investigators reached the same conclusion in a far shorter time frame?
- In a 1995 memo to independent counsel Ken Starr, you wrote that you found arguments that a president shouldn’t be called to testify before a grand jury to be “unpersuasive.” You went on to add, “Why should the president be different from anyone else for purposes of responding to a grand jury subpoena ad testificandum?” Do you still agree with that?
- In a 1998 letter, you recommended to Starr that he should refrain from pursuing a criminal indictment against Clinton while he remained in office. At that time, did you believe that the independent counsel’s office could lawfully indict a sitting president?
- Were there debates within the Office of the Independent Counsel about whether it would be constitutional to issue a criminal indictment against a sitting president? Was there ever any discussion within the OIC on whether a president could pardon himself?
- At any point during your tenure did you provide non-public information to journalists who were covering the OIC’s work?
- In a White House email dated March 15, 2001, you told colleagues that you would recuse yourself from three areas of legal matters while working in the White House counsel’s office: matters related to lawsuits brought by the legal organization Judicial Watch, matters related to the grand jury investigation of Bill Clinton, and matters involving the cosmetics industry. Do you intend to recuse yourself in those matters while serving on the Supreme Court? If not, why not?
- In 2015, you served on a three-judge panel in the D.C. Circuit that ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch. Why did you recuse yourself from cases involving the organization when you served in the White House, but not while on the D.C. Circuit?
- The March 15 email appeared to reference “additional matters/issues” on which you had recused yourself. Is this accurate, and if so, from what other issues did you recuse yourself while working in the White House counsel’s office? If you are confirmed, would you recuse yourself from those issues while serving on the Supreme Court?
- What role did you play, if any, in crafting the Bush administration’s policy on Guantanamo Bay and other detainees?
- During your confirmation hearing in 2006, you told the Senate Judiciary Committee that you were “not aware” of issues relating to detainee policy while working in the White House counsel’s office in 2003. In 2007, news reports indicated that you took part in discussions among White House staffers on how the Supreme Court would rule on detainee issues. Do you consider your answer in 2006 to be misleading?
- What role did you play, if any, in crafting the Bush administration’s policy on torture, which were often described as “enhanced interrogation techniques”?
- How would you define “torture”? Do you consider waterboarding to be torture?
- What role did you play, if any, in crafting the Bush administration’s policy on warrantless surveillance programs?
- What role did you play, if any, in crafting the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq War?
- Were you aware that White House staffers were using a private email server operated by the Republican National Committee to conduct official business, as publicly revealed in 2007? What steps did you take, if any, to notify those staffers of their obligations to preserve government records under the Presidential Records Act?
- In 2016, you told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute that you would like to overrule the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Morrison v. Olson, which upheld the constitutionality of the Independent Counsel Act. “It’s been effectively overruled, but I would put the final nail in,” you said at the time. Do you still believe that Morrison v. Olson should be overturned?
- In 1999, you said during a panel discussion that the “tensions of the time may have led to an erroneous decision” in United States v. Nixon, which is more widely known as the Watergate tapes case. Do you still agree with that position today? If not, why not?
- There are multiple definitions for what constitutes a constitutional crisis. How do you define the phrase?
- Do you think Nixon’s actions during the Watergate scandal, including his decision to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre, amounted to a constitutional crisis?
- Since the Watergate scandal, the Justice Department and the FBI have operated with a measure of independence from the presidency. Do you think this is appropriate?
- In a 2009 article for the Minnesota Law Review, you argued that Congress should immunize presidents from civil lawsuits and criminal indictments during their tenure in office. Do you still agree with that position today?
- Do you believe it is appropriate for presidents to publicly disparage individual judges for issuing rulings with which they disagree?
- Did the president or anyone else involved in your nomination process ever ask you about the Russia investigation? What about the Michael Cohen investigation, the criminal trial of Paul Manafort, or any other federal or state criminal investigation, past or present?
- When did you learn that the Trump administration was considering you for a vacancy on the Supreme Court?
- In your Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire for this nomination process, you listed yourself as a member of the Federalist Society from 1988 to the present day. In an email dated March 18, 2001, you told other members of the White House counsel’s office that you resigned from that organization “before starting work here.” Which account is accurate?
- Did you have any formal or informal discussions with Leonard Leo, other members of the Federalist Society, or members of the Heritage Foundation about your potential nomination to the Supreme Court before it was made public?
- 08/15/18--03:00: When a Young Trump Went to Russia
- 08/15/18--03:00: What France Means When It Talks About ‘Anti-Semitism’
- 08/15/18--11:19: How to Cure Corporate America’s Selfishness
- 08/16/18--03:00: Moments Like This
- 08/16/18--03:01: The New Republic September Issue: Identity Crisis
- 08/16/18--03:01: Don’t Abolish ICE
Heaven’s a horse a train a ship with no
Captain or with a captain but the captain is
A Negro or a rowboat tied but loose-
ly to the dock the river peaceful no-
body or everybody is a Ne-
gro it’s a hundred Negroes on the dock
A thousand Negroes like when Jesus broke
the bread to feed ten thousand peo-
ple maybe fifteen and the bread just grew
And grew the dock just grows and grows
Ten thousand Negroes cheering you to freedom
A hundred thousand and you got good shoes
And walk to the rowboat smiling and untie it
But Heaven ain’t you running but you staying
During the month that the World Cup was broadcast on Florida’s three Telemundo TV stations this summer, one advertisement stood out. It begins with Colombian, Mexican, and Brazilian fans celebrating their national teams. Over a soaring score and a snare drum, a voice cuts in: “We in Florida celebrate because we come from all over the world, and this great state is now our home.” Then Republican Governor Rick Scott appears on camera, the sleeves of his light blue dress shirt rolled up. “I’m Rick Scott,” he says in rapid Spanish. “The time has come to enjoy the games. May the best team win!”
Scott’s $700,000 investment in the ad, which aired at least once a day throughout the World Cup, reaching hundreds of thousands of Latinos across Florida, suggests that he sees their votes as a key element in his strategy to unseat Senator Bill Nelson this fall. The 75-year-old Democratic incumbent hasn’t shown the same interest. While Nelson has taken strong stances on Latino issues, he didn’t invest in any World Cup ads of his own and, as of August, still didn’t have a Spanish-language page on his web site. (Scott does.) Such decisions reveal a cavalier attitude toward Latino voters that isn’t just a problem for Nelson, whose race is unexpectedly tight, but for the party as a whole.
Donald Trump’s decision to strike down protections for young, undocumented immigrants; the botched response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; the ramped-up deportations and separated families at the border—all these should help Democrats win over Latino voters. Matt Barreto of the polling firm Latino Decisions said he has never seen them so frustrated. A recent poll of 1,000 Latino voters found that more than 70 percent were “very angry” about the separation of families at the border and about Trump calling immigrants “animals.” And yet Democratic candidates are underperforming in key Hispanic districts: In California’s 39th, which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, Democrat Gil Cisneros is now trailing the Republican incumbent by 2 points, according to a recent poll; and in Texas’s Senate race, Democrat Beto O’Rourke struggled during the primary to drum up support in the predominantly Latino border towns. (More recently, in a May Quinnipiac poll, he was lagging behind Ted Cruz with Hispanic voters, 46 percent to 44 percent.) Such signs should spur Democratic leaders, who are relying on Hispanic support to win back the House, to redouble their efforts to engage Latinos, organizationally and financially. But it hasn’t happened.
The money and the machinery is there. It’s just that not enough of it is directed at Latinos. With total spending on the midterm elections expected to reach $4 billion, outside groups and super PACs have almost unlimited funds. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has pledged $30 million to take back the House. Liberal philanthropist George Soros has already spent $15 million. And Michael Bloomberg has promised $80 million. Yet none of the cash they have allocated has been earmarked exclusively for a major new initiative to reach Latinos. Bloomberg has been focused on gun control and Steyer on climate change—as well as impeachment. He has spent another $40 million on billboards in Times Square, town hall meetings, and TV ads urging the House to oust the president. “If he’d given Mi Familia Vota [a Latino group that works to register and mobilize Hispanic voters] that money, they would have registered enough Latino voters by now to turn Texas blue,” said Andres Ramirez, a veteran Democratic strategist. Yet most of these liberal megadonors “would scoff at Latino groups making this request,” he added. “They wouldn’t even entertain it.”
Part of the problem is who’s in the room making choices about where to put the money. “The structural spaces that make these decisions constantly exclude Latinos,” said Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, for example, has long been criticized for having only a handful of Latinos on staff. (A spokesperson from Priorities said it is “interviewing consulting firms to supplement our staff.”)
This impacts how funds are distributed: Increasingly, Latino outreach efforts are folded into broader plans to engage black voters and other minorities. This is the case at Steyer’s NextGen Rising and at George Soros’s Democracy Alliance, which used to have an annual $5 million Latino engagement fund—until two years ago, when it was overhauled and given a new mission: to support Latino, African American, Native American, Pacific Islander, and LGBT groups. The fund’s director, David Montez, won’t divulge how much of his current annual budget goes to Latinos, saying only, “It’s not enough.” And even with Tom Perez, the first Latino to head the Democratic National Committee, at its helm, the party has been little help. Apart from a $2.5 million effort to engage “low propensity” voters, which includes both minority groups and rural voters, the DNC has only spent $100,000 on Latino engagement in Florida and another $100,000 in Pennsylvania. “They should be doing [more of] this work, but frankly they don’t have the money,” said a DNC member who works on diversity outreach and who asked for anonymity to describe the state of the party’s finances.
Without funds devoted to Latinos specifically, it’s going to be difficult to turn them out, let alone register them to vote. In the ten states with the largest Hispanic populations, between 40 to 43 percent of the Latino community has not yet registered this year, said Ben Monterroso, Mi Familia Vota’s executive director. “The bottom line is, if we’re not invited to the party, we’re not coming.”
For a writer of “obvious greatness”—as Dwight Garner termed him in The New York Times—it is remarkable that V.S. Naipaul is so well known, in life and now in death, for his many flaws. His catalog of sins has been well established: He was an ogre in real life, especially to the women closest to him; he was an ogre in his writing, especially in his unfeeling portrayal of women (again) and Africans, Indians, Muslims, Trinidadians, and other subjects of the post-colonial world; he was a reactionary, a misanthrope, and a narcissist, all of which suffused his work. The famous opening sentence of his novel A Bend in the River (1979), set in an unnamed Central African country, has often been taken as his brutal credo: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
The theme of Naipaul’s greatness—the great writer who stands in contrast to those men who are nothing, who will slip into a vast nothingness as if they had never existed in the first place—runs through his work. In India: A Wounded Civilization (1976), the second in Naipaul’s trilogy on his ancestral homeland, he describes a group of laborers in a typically pitiless and racial fashion: “around us the serfs, underfed, landless, less than people, dark wasted faces and dark rags fading into the dusk.” It was out of this darkness that Naipaul himself emerged, almost miraculously, transcending the impoverished background of his family, who had migrated to Trinidad in the late 19th century to work in indentured servitude on a plantation. It was there that Naipaul was born in 1932, to a poor but upper-caste father who aspired to be a writer and toiled in the shadow of his wife’s large extended family.
Naipaul’s rise from such meager, benighted circumstances astonished him more than anyone, and he returned to his unlikely coming-of-age story again and again, in essays, speeches, non-fiction books, and novels that ranged from his 1961 breakthrough A House for Mr. Biswas to 2001’s Half a Life. The self-centered tilt of his writing, however, is also chalked up as a flaw. While memoir is a pillar of post-colonial literature, the repeated emphasis on his own story struck some as evidence of a monstrous egoism. As the editors of n+1 quipped, the “persistent implication” of Naipaul’s work is “that the only legitimate escape from ‘half-made’ post-colonial countries is to become V. S. Naipaul.”
It’s a clever line, with the bite of truth. (It stings doubly so because the sentiment is attributed to Salman Rushdie, who was once considered Naipaul’s competitor as the laureate of the post-colonial condition.) But is it really so far-fetched to connect Naipaul’s project of self-discovery—a lifelong effort to invent and re-invent himself—to the broader project of creating a post-colonial world? Underlying Naipaul’s work is a philosophy that, if anything, is even more relevant now than it was at the dawn of the post-colonial era. The world is harsh and unloving, but for Naipaul this is not an occasion for despair or resignation. Rather, it makes for a wisdom grounded in the hard truths: the world as it is, not the way we would like it to be.
Pankaj Mishra has observed that Naipaul’s work represents the “ironic reversal of the Conradian journey to the heart of darkness.” He sails out of a remote existence, clouded by myth and ignorance, into a clearer understanding of his life, his country, the world. “Each book is a new beginning, which dismantles what has gone before it,” Mishra writes. “This explains the endlessly replayed drama of arrival, and what seems an obsession with writerly beginnings, in Naipaul’s writings.”
A perfect example can be found in his 1987 masterpiece The Enigma of Arrival, a meditative work of autobiographical fiction set in Wiltshire in the English countryside (which, along with London, was to become his home). Among other things, it tells the story of his journey from Trinidad to Oxford, which is bound up with his ambition to become a writer. Here is the description of his first plane flight:
There had, first, been an airplane, a small one of the period, narrow, with a narrow aisle, and flying low. This had given me my first revelation: the landscape of my childhood seen from the air, and from not too high up. At ground level so poor to me, so messy, so full of huts and gutters and bare front yards and straggly hibiscus hedges and shabby backyards: views from the roadside. From the air, though, a landscape of logic and larger pattern; the straight lines and regularity and woven, carpet-like texture of sugarcane fields … a landscape of clear pattern and contours, absorbing all the roadside messiness, a pattern of dark green and dark brown, like camouflage, like a landscape in a book, like the landscape of a real country. So that at the moment of takeoff almost, the moment of departure, the landscape of my childhood was like something which I had missed, something I had never seen.
The moment of departure, then the enigma of arrival: these are the bookends of the central event in Naipaul’s life. Though it is a single journey—a plane to New York, a boat to England—a whole life will be defined by this rupture, splitting the emigrant in two: the person he once was and the person he will become. In Naipaul’s case it comes in the form of a revelation, a sweeping view of the homeland that he belatedly realizes, poor colonial that he is, may be a “real country.” There are more revelations to come and they are all just as painful, exposing the true extent of his unworldliness. In a strange hotel room in New York City he hunches over a trash can to eat, with his bare hands, a chicken he has brought from Trinidad, too scared to ask the hotel staff for utensils, too scared to eat other food for the caste fear of contamination. He then worries the room stinks of his chicken, of his Hindu peasant origins.
His budding writing career is also afflicted by his ignorance. His conception of the writer is pure posture, one who dabbles in higher things, not in the muck of what, in his view, has been an entirely backwards existence: the huts and gutters and bare front yards. It is only when he turns to Trinidad for material that a real writer emerges. It is a moment central to Naipaul’s self-created lore, when the young correspondent of the BBC’s Caribbean Service begins a story—on BBC “non-rustle” script paper, in the “Victorian-Edwardian gloom” of the freelancers’ room in London’s Langham Hotel—with what would become the first line of 1959’s Miguel Street: “Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’” As he describes it in the essay “Prologue to an Autobiography,” that was when he found his subject—himself—which radiated outward in ever-larger circles: his family, his people, the post-colonial universe. It was a blow against what fate had doled out to his father, the inspiration for Mr. Biswas, and the long line of anonymous ancestors who receded into the fog of the past: “To be a writer … to die in mid-sentence, was to triumph over darkness.”
Naipaul’s trajectory toward enlightenment, and hence toward salvation, is a complicated one. The understanding he achieves is European in nature—he obtains it by winning a scholarship to Oxford, by entering the gloomy halls of the BBC, by gaining an aerial view of history that emphasizes logic and pattern. He has the colonial’s stubborn appreciation for the colonizer, which sometimes led him to the problematic, ahistorical view that colonizers gifted their subjects a cultural memory. As the narrator of A Bend in the River posits, “Without Europeans, I feel, all our past would have been washed away, like the scuff marks of fishermen on the beach outside our town.”
But his understanding is also rooted in direct experience of life in the Caribbean. Direct experience is the basis for his pessimistic view of the kinds of economic aid programs and good governance schemes that long characterized the developing world’s push to modernity, old certainties embodied by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. He allowed himself to be appalled by what he saw in India, for example—the poverty, the filth, the lowness of life—perhaps because he sensed that, in a parallel universe, it was his life that barely cast a glimmer in the encroaching dusk. And he dared to suggest that the obstacle wasn’t a lack of decent plumbing or a new irrigation system, but something spiritual, psychological, borne of centuries of subjugation—wounds with which he was intimately familiar.
He was not always right in his diagnosis, not by a long shot. But it was the spirit of the endeavor that mattered, animated by the idea that we are capable of seeing ourselves with clear eyes; that the former subjects of empire can become mature, confident citizens if they keep their gaze honest and steady; that who we are is created, not destined.
Even by the standards of Elon Musk’s wild 2018—which has included production, cash flow, and fire problems at his electric car company Tesla, and a number of reckless and irresponsible tweets—the last week has been insane. Tesla’s trading was halted last Tuesday after Musk tweeted that he planned on taking the company private at $420 a share.
Given Musk’s propensity for using Twitter for pranks, many assumed he was joking. But two days later, with the Securities and Exchange Commission circling (tweeting about taking a company private almost certainly counts as stock manipulation), Musk stuck to his guns. There are still numerous legal hurdles involved, but he confirmed that he is exploring a deal to take the company private, which he believes would create the environment for Tesla “to operate best.” On Monday, he suggested that the money would come from the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund, which had approached him “multiple times” about taking the company private over the past two years.
It very well may be true that Tesla needs to go private to “operate best.” Tesla has had serious cash flow and manufacturing problems as it has tried to ramp up production. Musk also has serious problems dealing with the transparency requirements that come with being a public company. But investors have hardly punished it. Instead, Tesla’s stock has stayed in the $350 range over the past year, even as Musk has done everything possible to dampen enthusiasm for his leadership.
So the question of whether Tesla is a public or a private company seems to point to larger ones: Is Tesla the world-altering car company that Musk and his acolytes claim that it is? If so, is the erratic Musk the right person to lead it? And if not, is it just another cash-burning Silicon Valley darling on the verge of losing its luster?
Musk made his fortune at PayPal and has poured it into Tesla, a company that he sees as part of a larger mission to save the world from environmental ruin. He has also founded SpaceX, a space exploration venture; Boring Company (“hyperloop” travel); and Neuralink, which is pursuing cyborg-ish brain implant technology. While all of these companies play a role in Musk’s public image as a man of the future (or, for his critics, the personification of everything wrong with Silicon Valley technocapitalism), Tesla is his day job and the company with which he is most closely associated.
That Musk is essentially synonymous with Tesla has been a boon for Tesla. Tesla has struggled to meet production targets and laid off nine percent of its staff in June to ensure profitability. It is burning through cash and had its credit rating downgraded by Moody’s in May. One of its self-driving cars crashed on autopilot, killing its driver. And yet the market rewards Tesla for modest successes (and promises of future profitability), thanks in part to confidence in Musk. Even his bizarre tweets (like when he accused a diver involved in the Thai soccer team rescue of being a “pedo”) play into a narrative of the brilliant and eccentric innovator.
There are a lot of advantages to going private. The panoply of venture capital firms in Silicon Valley (and elsewhere) could supply the cash that Tesla craves as it inches toward some semblance of sustainability, without worrying about the kinds of targets and disclosures that are required of a public company. And for Musk, it is the transparency of a public company—and the critics and short-sellers transparency attracts—that really bothers him. He has admitted as much, saying:
As a public company, we are subject to wild swings in our stock price that can be a major distraction for everyone working at Tesla, all of whom are shareholders. Being public also subjects us to the quarterly earnings cycle that puts enormous pressure on Tesla to make decisions that may be right for a given quarter, but not necessarily right for the long-term. Finally, as the most shorted stock in the history of the stock market, being public means that there are large numbers of people who have the incentive to attack the company.
But Musk is mistaken if he thinks that going private will solve these problems. He will continue to own about 20 percent of the company, which means he will still have investors to answer to. Because attorneys for Musk have suggested that new investments will come from a “special-purpose vehicle that is accessible to all shareholders,” the new company would (probably) still be public enough to be expected to produce financial statements. Scrutiny is inevitable, and there’s no reason to suspect that a scarcity of financial information will suddenly make his haters disappear.
It also won’t make Tesla’s larger problems disappear, either. Yes, the company burned through less cash in the second quarter of 2018 (negative cash flow of $740 million) compared to the first (over $1 billion). And Musk claimed in an investor call in early August that he expected progress to continue. But Tesla, founded in 2003, now faces increased competition in the electric car market. It produces 5,000 cars a week, or 260,000 cars a year. (A single BMW plant in South Carolina made nearly 400,000 cars in 2017.) Combined with Musk’s public relations problems, there is no strong sense that Tesla is on the verge of turning a corner.
Wall Street has been very patient with the company. The company’s image as a world-shaking unicorn on the cusp of a major breakthrough has remained intact. Even when Musk has tried to change that narrative with tweets about bankruptcy and odd behavior on earnings calls—which some have speculated is an attempt to sabotage the stock so he can take the company private—the market has largely stuck with him.
This ultimately gets at the absurdity surrounding the company. Musk has done everything possible over the past few months to dampen enthusiasm for Tesla, but it just floats along. Musk may be fond of saying that Tesla is the most shorted company in history, but its short sellers have lost billions as the stock has stubbornly refused to plummet. In this regard, Tesla may not be unique at all. Perhaps it is just another overhyped tech darling, buoyed by an industry that has a history of supporting middling companies with charismatic founders. Sometimes that faith is rewarded. Other times reality eventually catches up.
In 2006, just before Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican strategist Dan Schnur told NPR that “if you’re a Republican trying to warn voters against a Democratic vote, even for one of these more moderate candidates, you can say ‘San Francisco values,’ you can mention Nancy Pelosi, and the point you can make in almost a verbal shorthand is to say, ‘Hey, look, these are tax-raising, terrorist-loving, same-sex marriage supporting, ultra-liberal Democrats who aren’t like you and me.’”
So it’s been for the last 12 years. Pelosi’s name has become a shibboleth, brandished in countless Republican attack ads against Democratic candidates for the House. This year, ahead of the fall midterms, the strategy has only intensified. As USA Today reported in April, a third of all GOP broadcast ads for House races this year featured the Democratic leader—up from 9 percent in 2016 and 13 percent in 2014.
Some Democrats fear the strategy is working, costing the party votes and possibly endangering the predicted “blue wave” in November. “People pretend that it isn’t a problem, but it’s a problem that exists,” Representative Brian Higgins, a New York Democrat, told The Washington Post. Even if Democrats still win the House, Republican consultant Ken Spain said, “it could be the difference between having a razor-thin majority and a governing majority. It’s a lot easier to move legislation when you have a cushion of votes to work with.”
To move House legislation, of course, the party will need a House leader. But it’s not clear, amid a growing mutiny, that Pelosi will retain the position she’s held for the past dozen years—nor is there a clear alternative. That’s why the real Pelosi conundrum for Democrats isn’t on the campaign trail; it’s in the House come January.
The midterms are still a few months away, but the signs are promising for the opposition party. Democratic turnout is up. According to recent polls, voters prefer Democrats in Congress over Republicans—even in deeply conservative regions like western Virginia. In generic congressional ballots, Democrats currently lead Republicans by an average of 5 points, and new candidates have either upset Republicans in historically red districts or at least closed wide gaps.
While the party regains its footing in the Trump era, though, its leadership seems less certain. NBC News reported last week that over 50 Democratic candidates have declined to back Pelosi’s continued leadership. Among the rank-and-file, anti-Pelosi sentiment seems even stronger. About half of Democratic voters say they’d support a new party leader over Pelosi.
This opposition to Pelosi’s leadership did not appear overnight. Dissent has grown slowly for years, and it now seems to unite the party’s left and moderate wings. Left-wing candidates tend to oppose Pelosi because they find her fearsome “San Francisco values” not very far to the left at all. In 2016, she rejected Senator Bernie Sanders’s suggestion that the government could raise taxes to pay for his social welfare policies. And in 2017, she declined to endorse Sanders’s single-payer health care bill. In its 2017 report card on Congress, the website GovTrack ranked Pelosi as the 37th most conservative House Democrat, out of 197.
Pelosi might be a more natural ally to moderate Democrats, but lately they aren’t interested in her support, either. Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb disavowed Pelosi during his successful campaign for the House; so did Danny O’Connor, who nearly achieved an upset victory in Ohio’s 12th congressional district. The one challenge to Pelosi’s leadership has also come from the party’s moderate wing. Ohio Representative Tim Ryan unsuccessfully ran against Pelosi for the party’s leadership in 2016, but re-emerged recently as a possible successor: Politico reported last month that Ryan is privately considering another challenge.
While left-wing and moderate Democrats seem unified in their disdain for Pelosi, there is no clear unity candidate to replace her as leader. Ryan, who won the support of one third of the Democratic caucus in 2016, might be able to unify the party’s center and center-right. His views have evolved during his time in office—he no longer opposes abortion rights, for example, and he supports Medicare for All—but he is still a moderate. He recently told Politico that he “would not be mad” if the outlet said that he considered himself a younger version of former Vice President Joe Biden. (He ranks 60th on that GovTrack list.)
A Ryan leadership might spare candidates targeted by the GOP (“Youngstown values” doesn’t have the same ring as “San Francisco values”), but he’s not likely to get support from left-wing Democrats. “You’re not going to make me hate somebody just because they’re rich. I want to be rich!” Ryan joked recently at a conference held by Third Way, the centrist think tank. Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two democratic socialists who are almost certain to enter the House this fall, probably don’t see the humor in Ryan’s remarks. Many Democratic voters might not either, given evidence that the party’s base now views socialism more favorably than capitalism.
But left-wing Democrats don’t have an obvious alternative to Ryan, which points to the real problem with Pelosi. “They come after me because I’m effective,” Pelosi told Rolling Stone in July. She was referring to Republicans, but could well have been referring to Democrats, too. Her skill as a parliamentarian is unquestionable, as when she shepherded the Affordable Care Act through a fractious Congress. She’s also an accomplished fundraiser for her colleagues. She is effective, which is partly why she’s been a congresswoman since 1987 and has steered the party since 2006. But while Pelosi and her fellow leaders held onto power, the party’s backbench has withered. Now, the backbench is rising up—with enough votes to boot Pelosi from power, but not enough to elevate a new leader.
Is Pelosi still “worth the trouble,” as she puts it? Democrats won’t know for sure until next year, but her tenure is certainly in doubt.
Two years ago a New Scientist headline announced the “world’s first baby born with new ‘3 parent’ technique.” Whereas an embryo is usually produced by one sperm and one egg, this technique uses genetic material from three separate people. First performed by a New York fertility clinic in Mexico to evade US legal restrictions, the procedure has now been replicated several times. A clinic in Ukraine started offering a similar procedure in late 2016 (albeit on shaky ethical and medical grounds), while regulatory authorities in the United Kingdom approved its use for two women earlier this year.
The cases in the UK and Mexico each involve a woman who carries a rare disease of her mitochondria, the cellular structures that produce energy in our cells. Mitochondria have their own DNA and can harbor their own genetic diseases. These are passed on solely through the maternal line, because mitochondria are found in eggs but not in sperm. One approach to blocking transmission of these illnesses involves inserting the DNA-filled nucleus from the egg of the woman into a donor egg full of healthy mitochondria but stripped of its own nucleus. Fertilize that hybrid egg with a sperm, and presto! A child could be born nine months later with DNA from three people and without a catastrophic mitochondrial disorder.
This result could be a blessing—but the science behind it sounds confusing. Isn’t DNA supposed to be our sacred blueprint, wound up in chromosomes and locked up safely in the nucleus of our cells? What are these mitochondrial creatures doing with their own DNA, replicating within our cells and bequeathing diseases to our offspring? If they seem like invaders, it’s because they once were. Mitochondria, it turns out, were originally bacteria; their free-wheeling existence came to an end one day deep in evolutionary history when they entered another single-celled organism and started a new life inside. That receiving cell was the ancestor of all animals, plants, fungi, and protists. The origin of the mitochondria is reflected in the basic shape of its DNA: It is looped in a simple circle, just like a bacteria’s, unlike the linear chromosomes found in our nuclei.
Children conceived with a third person’s mitochondria are, it follows, the offspring of three parents, but the third parent is, in at least some sense, the descendant of an ancient bacteria. After those bacteria took up residence in our common ancestor, they proceeded to swap genetic material with the nucleus, further blurring the boundaries between host and invader, self and other over the eons.
This is not what we think of as Darwinian evolution, the transmission of genes and traits down the family line. DNA, it turns out, can also be passed laterally, between individuals, including those of different species. This discovery represented a tectonic shift in our understanding of nature, a story that David Quammen tells wonderfully in his exhaustively researched book, Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. Crisscrossing the country to interview scientists and visit labs, Quammen provides a vivid portrait of the scientific process, and of the quarrelsome, quirky, (in one instance) evil, and brilliant scientists behind it. We may like to think of DNA as the neat bequest of our parents, the fusion of two unique, circumscribed human lineages. Yet it is—and we are—something more: short strands within a vast interwoven genetic web, stretching back to the earth’s earliest days, linking all living things.
Quammen’s story starts with Charles Darwin, who—well before publishing On the Origin of Species—jotted down a historic sentiment in a notebook: “organized beings represent a tree.” Although it was a long-established concept (it had precursors in both the bible and Aristotle), Darwin’s version “was a thunderous assertion, abstract but eloquent.” His Tree of Life suggested a common ancestor at the tree’s trunk and ever-dividing branches leading from it to new species. It became the standard pictorial representation of evolution until, as Quammen notes, “a small group of scientists would discover: oops, no, it’s wrong.”
One important strand in this story was the discovery of endosymbiosis: the fact that mitochondria—together with chloroplasts, the structures in plant cells that convert sunlight into food—were once bacteria that started a new life within our cellular forefathers. One of the theory’s earliest and most influential proponents, as Quammen tells it, was a nefarious Russian scientist named Constantin Sergeyevich Merezhkowsky. Merezhkowsky fled from the Crimea in 1898, likely because he was a child molester, and wound up in California, where he studied a single-celled alga that performed photosynthesis (while writing some bizarre science fiction on the side). His work led him to embrace the (unproven) hypothesis that chloroplasts in the algae were, in fact, ancient invaders. He would commit suicide in 1921 in a hotel room in Geneva, but his theory lived on, in obscurity.
It was revived decades later by a prominent, controversial scientist named Lynn Margulis. In 1970, Margulis published a book, Origin of Eurayotic Cells, that expounded a modern version of endosymbiosis. Some saw her theory as brilliant, while others, Quammen writes, “thought she was nuts.” She was ultimately proven right, by another scientist, Fred Doolittle, in Nova Scotia. He and his collaborators analyzed an ancient cellular structure called the ribosome (responsible for building all the cell’s proteins) to prove that both chloroplasts and mitochondria were indeed “foreign” species. They, in turn, relied on techniques innovated by the main character of the book, the complicated, conservative, and grudge-bearing Carl Woese of the University of Illinois.
Woese was a scientist who helped radically redraw the “Tree of Life” like perhaps no other in the twentieth century. Among other things, he and colleagues “discovered” that there was an entirely new type of life known as the “archaea.” Even Woese, however, was mostly left behind by the next big paradigm shift—the discovery of “horizontal gene transfer.”
Horizontal gene transfer gives us new ways of understanding many phenomena. One is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When treating a serious infection, physicians will typically send a sample—whether of pus, phlegm, urine, or blood—to the laboratory. Within a couple of days, a report comes back, with the name of the bacteria and a list of what can be used to kill it. Next to each antibiotic on the list will be one of three letters: S (“sensitive”), I (“intermediate”), or R (“resistant”). Depending on the bacteria, there may be mostly S’s, but sometimes a glance at the report produces a queasy sensation. Perhaps there are very few S’s; maybe, there is none.
Darwinian evolution, of course, can explain the rise of antibiotic-resistant bugs. It happens like this. A colony of bacteria gets doused in a deadly antibiotic. Amidst the die off, one bacterium has a lucky mutation that, say, lets it manufacture a molecule that can pump the antibiotic safely out of its cytoplasm into the surrounding slime. That lucky guy thrives and divides and replaces its massacred brethren, and gives rise to a new and nastier colony impervious to the antibiotic. Or as Darwin cheerfully put it On the Origin of Species, “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”
So far so good, for the bacteria
anyway. But unfortunately for us (and unknown to Darwin), bacteria possess
another means to acquire antibiotic resistance without having to sit around
waiting for the next lucky mutation: They can swap genes the way we share
recipes. When one bacterium rolls up close to another—not necessarily even of
the same species—it can share a chromosome containing a slew of genes with,
say, an enzyme that can smash penicillin into pieces.
Horizontal gene transfer is much more than a way for bacteria to share antibiotic resistance genes; it happens throughout nature and in the history of living things. We are all, for instance, partially viruses in a sense: Eight percent of the human genome arrived to us from the outside, from retroviruses, as Quammen notes. Various studies suggest that many of our genes were acquired, horizontally, from bacteria. Life, in other words, is not just a history of divergence, of the sprouting of new forms from a solid trunk. Sometimes, life converges. From this perspective, those three-parent children are no more unusual than you are or I am.
Ultimately The Tree of Life is merely a metaphor, but I think a pleasant one: It connects us to the lineage of all living things, all the way back to the bag of chemicals—or maybe the single molecule—that one day coalesced in the primordial muck. Yet like all metaphors, the “tree” falls short of reality. For in biology, all boundaries are blurred: between species, sometimes even between individual organisms, and probably between the living and the non-living.
It was Chinese New Year, a weeklong celebration of fireworks
and family to scare up good fortune and dispel evil spirits, when the killer
went on the prowl again.
He picked a young worker walking home, and followed a ways behind. He’d done it before, many times, enough to perfect his technique, but things did not go as planned that winter’s night. His crimes were already notorious and the target realized the danger; she fought back tooth and nail, locked the door, and frantically called her husband.
It was then, she said, that her would-be killer reappeared, grinning outside her window. When her husband reached her, the couple checked again: there he still was, still laughing. By the time police arrived, though, the smiling apparition had vanished into the New Year’s night, blending into the carefree popping of corks and firecrackers—and the 14-year pall of fear and suspicion one phantom had managed to cast over a remote city of 1.7 million in the world’s largest authoritarian country.
“Our parents used to talk about it sometimes,” Sun, a friend who grew up near the northeast city where at least one of the killings occurred, told me. “When we were growing up, kids weren’t allowed to go out after dark… and my mom never let me wear anything red.”
Between 1988 and 2002, multiple women were murdered in the cities of Baiyin, Gansu province, and Baotou in Inner Mongolia, some five hundred miles to the northeast. Media reports on the crimes would come under the strict control of China’s propaganda departments and, even today, outsiders reporting on the subject are met with a near-impenetrable wall of silence. Still, stories spread: the victims were young, female, pretty; their bodies had been horribly desecrated; the killer was said to favour long-haired girls, in high heels, wearing red. Only some of these tales were true—but they were the worst ones.
In August 2016, nearly three decades after the killings began, and after years of inactivity from the killer, police sensationally revealed the most unremarkable suspect: Gao Chengyong, a 52-year-old recluse who shared a campus grocery store with his wife. Gao quickly confessed, Chinese media reported. Suggestions that there may have been other survivors, or that Gao had killed more, came to naught. During sentencing in March of this year, prosecutors addressed only the official charges: the rape, mutilation, and murder of 11 women. In the two years since Gao’s arrest, the reasons for his crimes have remained as elusive as the killer himself—a function both of the inscrutable perpetrator and a compulsively secretive law enforcement, reluctant to talk about a period in which Chinese forensic methods had yet to catch up with behavior unleashed during decades of rapid and chaotic economic development.
Why had Gao suddenly stopped in 2002? The botched encounter in 2001 was one possibility; growing family pressures another. The killer was getting old, less able to subdue young women. Remarkably, he’d even acquired a reputation for filial piety among his naïve neighbors, having nursed a sick father and raised two children. His eldest son was born back in 1988, the same year the killings began.
His first victim was 23. Her body had 26 knife wounds. At 24, Gao was only one year older than Bai, whose friends and family always called her “Little White Shoes.” He would later claim it was only meant to be burglary when he broke into the factory bungalow where her family lived. But Bai woke, and Gao struggled to silence her, ultimately strangling her to death. Her brother, in his room just a few feet away, never heard a thing; the volume on Bai’s snazzy new tape-deck was turned up all night. Gao sat after, leafing through Bai’s photo album, staring at the girl’s frozen image for hours; then he destroyed the pictures and went home to his pregnant wife. Burn after reading: it would become a pattern. But six years apparently went past without him killing again in Baiyin; meanwhile, the city itself began its own slow death spiral.
During the Mao era, Baiyin had been a flagship of the planned economy, an industrial powerhouse built on wealth from copper ore. Miners and metalworkers were dispatched from across China to help exploit the rich seams found in this impoverished region’s dusty bowels; women from other work units were sent afterward to join them, and start families. After a while, the city flourished: “Baiyin Metals employees were the city’s trendsetters,” reported Shanghai-based media startup Sixth Tone. “They were the first to have perms, turtleneck sweaters, bell-bottom pants, whatever was popular at the time.” As one resident put it: “The people of Baiyin were different from those of other parts of Gansu.”
Community bonds were stronger in mid-century Baiyin, too, partly due to the collectivist spirit of the age, but also because social mobility was strictly limited by the country’s household registration (hukou) system, which tethered almost all Chinese to their birthplace. During the gold rush years, the restrictions gave few reason to worry. But by the mid-1990s, the copper-producing region was barely recognizable to those who remembered its heyday. Like the U.S. in the late 19th Century, China was rapidly industrializing, and undergoing seismic societal shifts. The “traditional family style of living”—a Confucian ideal of “four generations under one roof ... where everyone kept an eye on each other” began to break up, as international forensic scientist Dr Henry C. Lee explained in a phone interview from New York; old hukou restrictions were relaxed, giving a vast and itinerant blue-collar population access to newly developed routes and infrastructure, as railroads, freeways, and ports—and, just as in the U.S., where early 20th century murderers like the Cleveland Torso Killer, Chicago’s H.H. Holmes, and the Mad Axeman of New Orleans began preying on a ready supply of “low end” migrant populations (day laborers, runaways, vagrants, sex workers, addicts), the age of the serial killer was dawning in China.
As Baiyin’s ore started to run out towards the end of the 1980s, the prosperous mining town lost its luster, and began to resemble those other moribund parts of the state-run economy that were being unsentimentally dismantled during a fresh swathe of economic reforms. The city’s wealth and revolutionary image tapered off, its sense of communal prosperity gradually replaced with rising unemployment, youth gangs, mass migration.
The second killing came on a July afternoon in 1994, when a 19-year-old cleaner disturbed a man wandering the dormitories at the Baiyin Power-Supply Bureau. Gao slit her throat and stabbed her 36 times. Four years after, a 29-year-old third victim was found naked with 16 wounds and a fresh signature: parts of her scalp and ears were missing. Only three days later, Gao killed again, this time taking portions of his victim’s breast and torso.
Returning to Baiyin’s Power-Supply Bureau on July 5, Gao encountered eight-year-old Miao Miao at around six in the evening, waiting for her parents; he raped the child, strangled her with a leather belt, then poured himself a cup of tea from a flask on the kitchen table. Later, police would ask how old Gao’s own son was at the time. Ten, he replied. “I stared at him, and he stared back for almost ten seconds, before lowering his head,” the interviewing officer told the Beijing News. “My fist was raised [and I] almost slammed it into his face.”
Four months later, factory worker Cui Jinping was found by her mother in a pool of blood, her body horribly mutilated. It was Gao’s fourth kill in a single year, and the city was now in full panic: Police began sweeping neighborhoods, conducting door-to-door interviews, tossing apartments, in a desperate hunt for witnesses or clues.
Meanwhile, and perhaps unwittingly, authorities were sitting on a motherlode of evidence—DNA samples collected from multiple crime scenes. At the time, forensic analysis was still in its infancy, with budgets extremely tight. Indeed, up until the mid-1980s, most Chinese police did not have proper uniforms, stations, squad cars, or tactical equipment. It was only in 1983, after a pair of gun-toting homicidal brothers went on a six-month robbery spree that left over a dozen dead and wounded in their wake (including several soldiers and officers), that the government realized its newly emerging capitalist society would need serious and well-funded policing.
In northeast China in the mid-90s, demand for rigorous policing still far exceeded supply. Factory closures had left millions without jobs or the skills to find new ones; there was mass unrest in many places, most meeting with swift reprisals from the state. Lacking social security, many resorted to petty crime to get by. And in the chaos, those inclined to darker deeds could operate with relative freedom.
By 1994, there were “almost certainly several serial killers” aside from Gao at large in the area, according to one source in the regional public security bureau, who spoke on strict condition of anonymity. They described a region where unemployment, despair and lawlessness abounded, and life was short and cheap. “The murder rate was very high at that time”—certainly much higher than any official figures show—“and many people did terrible things.” Only in the last decade or so has law managed to reassert itself in some of these remote and often-depressed districts.
But after the killings in 1998, the brief surge in street-level policing did manage to scare at least one of Baiyin’s bogeymen into temporary hiding.
Gao Chengyong was born in 1964, in Chenghe, a small county in Gansu, a perpetually poor province. Questioned by Chinese media after the arrest, his neighbors struggled to recall much about the quiet youngster; certainly, Gao didn’t much take to the agrarian life. By his late teens, he’d joined the sea of restless workers taking advantage of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and a more relaxed houkou system, which previously had strictly curtailed internal migration. In this new era, low-skilled laborers were able to take work where they could, moving on when they couldn’t, though the houkou still restricted their rights: A migrant like Gao could live in a place like Baiyin, but not access the benefits of better education, health, social security that such cities afforded. This caste-like policy enabled China’s emergent urban middle-class to enrich themselves on the backs of a largely disenfranchised and docile labor force that did most of the hard work. For most, the houkou was a social trap. For some, though, it proved a license to roam, adventure—or in Gao Chengyong’s case, to kill anonymously, an unregistered rogue amidst the closely monitored masses.
Gao was one of many “disorganized” murderers now roaming the country, with some amassing startling body counts: There was “Monster Killer” Yang Xinhai, who broke into farmhouses and killed all occupants, totaling 65 victims; Peng Maiji who used a meat cleaver to murder 77; Wu Jianchen, who killed 15; and Wang Qian, with 45 known victims. The apparent absence of motive, and arbitrary distribution of their crimes baffled police. Judicial disinterest, and jurisdictional restrictions, ensured that many murders were never even linked at the time. While the public remained largely in the dark about such threats, police were, at least, able to associate the Baiyin killings with a single suspect, even if he continued to elude them.
Though pressed into inactivity after the policing surge, Gao’s restraint lasted no more than a few years. He “just felt the need to kill someone,” he later told police. His methods were neither particularly organized or clever, as he afterwards admitted. While the rumors had insisted he had a fetish for red clothing or long hair, Gao later confessed he had merely wandered the streets in a fitful rage, choosing victims for their “appearance and suitability.” The post-mortem mutilations became his revenge for their initial resistance; he took care to don dark clothing to mask any blood spatter. In May 2001, a few months after his failed Spring Festival assault, Gao attacked and killed a 28-year-old nurse at her home, near the same address as his fourth victim.
Police enlisted eight specialists from the Ministry of Public Security, including Zhang Xin, Senior Engineer of Criminal Technology at the Shanghai Railway Public Security Bureau and an expert in facial composition. Gao’s bungled 2001 assault had left behind not just a terrified couple, but a police officer who’d observed a similar-looking suspect en route to the scene. Based on their descriptions, Zhang Xin produced a triptych of portraits. But his illustrations were only used internally, withheld from the media to avoid, in Zhang’s words, “a negative impact on the investigation.” Police launched a citywide dragnet collecting fingerprints from over 100,000 men, using the portraits as a reference. Although this effort represented the authorities’ most concerted attempt yet to catch the killer, the public never saw them.
Their efforts led nowhere. Gao’s last confirmed victim would meet her end on February 9, 2002, about a year after he’d failed to force his way into the young woman’s apartment. Twenty-five-year-old Ms. Zhu had been rooming long-term at the fleapit Taolechun Hostel before she had the misfortune to run into Gao. Her decomposing body was found 10 days later, stripped, raped, her throat cut. Afterward, Gao had gone home, perhaps alone, or to his wife or one of his sons, who usually saw him only once a year, around Spring Festival; one of the times he liked to hunt.
It would be his final crime. Perhaps, at 38, the homicidal urges had waned along with his physical strength. Since his arrest in 2016, though, Gao has proved a case study in disinterested sociopathy; asked why he took a first six-year hiatus after 1998, he told investigators he “didn’t know.” Gao has given only detailed recollections of his actual crimes, all delivered with a deadpan disposition. “Gao’s calmness is unimaginable… terrifying. He remembers everything clearly,” one interviewer said. But he has offered no clue as to motive—or how he eluded the manhunt for nearly three decades.
Only a mixture of fortune, fortitude, and forensic science caught up with him. After the murders ceased in 2002, detectives were left flailing. Many of the original crime scenes had been trampled on by a parade of rookie cops and officials, and fingerprint comparisons still involved step-by-step inspections with a magnifying glass; lead investigator Zhang Enwei says his team personally combed through over 230,000 sets of prints. In addition, profilers had advised police to look for a loner with a “sexual perversion … [who] hates women …reclusive and unsociable, but patient.” As a shopkeeper with two children, Gao seemed to be a model migrant, a married man who’d nursed his dying father through sickness and sent his sons to college.
“There was very little physical evidence,” as Detective Zhang Enwei told the Beijing News. On guard against all media while their investigation was ongoing—those working on the case had been instructed that any leaks would lead to instant dismissals, and see the case transferred to a different department—officials have only hesitantly opened up to local reporters since Gao’s arrest. Foreign reporters are almost universally shut out, for fear that officials will be punished if their name appears in an overseas article offering a negative impression of China.
Asked to be interviewed for this story, Detective Zhang declined, as did eight other experts. Gao’s own lawyer first agreed, then a week later pulled out, saying “leaders” had forbidden him from contacting foreign media. “People in the public security system are extremely wary of foreigners,” an intermediary of Zhang’s explained. “You can file a formal application through the police bureau”—an action tantamount to feeding it through a shredder.
Nervousness about the media, and foreigners in particular, has increased during Xi Jinping’s presidency. The secrecy extends to all levels of policing, including statistics. “Countries such as China do suppress information about crime,” Dr. Mike Aamodt, who compiled the Radford University/FGCU Serial Killer Database, told me. “One must be very cautious in interpreting any crime statistics from these countries—including the frequency of serial murder.” There are only 62 known serial killers in China, according to Dr. Aamodt’s latest statistics, which must rely on “Internet and English media sources” rather than public documents and court records. That’s to be compared to 3,376 known serial killers in the U.S., a population of over 325 million. “Estimating how many actual serial killers there have been in China is impossible,” Dr. Aamodt admits. “I would not be surprised if the actual rate is similar to the rate in the United States.” If it were, a population like China’s, over four times that of the U.S., could expect over ten thousand serial killers—not 62.
Chinese law enforcement, once dependent, according to Dr. Lee, on “traditional methods of interview and interrogation,” has advanced at a dizzying rate in the last two decades, “training [detectives] to international standards” and installing “laboratory facilities more advanced than many in the world.” Still, it wasn’t until 2010 that a proper forensics laboratory was established in Baiyin, and science could finally catch up with Gao and his DNA—or rather, his cousin’s. While their suspect had studiously spent years avoiding any involvement with authorities, a relative arrested on minor corruption charges in 2016 had given a swab. Computers found a familial match to some of the DNA from the crime scenes, and a task force was assembled to monitor their chief suspect, now working ostensibly as a campus shopkeeper, maintaining his quietly forgettable profile. “Everyone thought [Gao’s wife] was single, because she was the only one ever working,” a teacher told the Lanzhou Morning Post. Even if Gao hadn’t been so reclusive, who would connect the balding “serious looking” shopkeeper that staff remembered with the “murderous madness” of their youth, when nervous schoolgirls would return home over half-term rather than stay and study?
Prosecutors finally presented their case against Gao in July 2017, following an unusual year-long preparation: Prosecutors had to ensure “there are no false positives,” Gao’s lawyer, Zhu Enwai, explained, “Just in case, years later, someone jumps out and says ‘That was me.’”
At the end of a two-day trial at the Baiyin Intermediate People’s Court in Gansu, Gao stood and bowed thrice to his victims’ families, then bizarrely offered to donate his organs. Lacking any explanation, Gao’s act of ritual contrition appears as meaningless as his crimes. And without context or public follow-up, his crimes seem as arbitrary as his capture. But the only eyewitness to his assaults recalled a very different Gao Chengyong than the man who would reappear expressionless, in T-shirt and jeans, to offer his remorse and be sentenced to death in March: a sadist who stood outside her window, defiant, laughing.
Florida’s Senate race, where incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson has been steadily losing ground to Republican Rick Scott, could decide which party controls the Senate next year. And at the moment, it seems to hinge on an unusual issue: algae.
The state is dealing with one of the worst algal blooms in its history. A noxious “red tide” has coated 100 miles of beaches along the Gulf Coast with sludge and the carcasses of thousands of fish, sea turtles, and manatees. A 26-foot whale shark even floated ashore earlier this month—the first ever, The Washington Post reported, to be killed by algae. The crisis hasn’t just driven away tourists and hurt local businesses. It’s caused respiratory illnesses, headaches, rashes, and gastrointestinal distress all along the Florida coastline.
Now, both Scott and Nelson are campaigning on the algal bloom, laying the blame on each other in TV ads and in speeches. Though it would appear to be a local issue, it touches on a range of issues—deregulation, the environment, cronyism—that are playing out at the national level. And for Democrats looking for a foothold in the rapidly reddening South, where some of the nation’s most pressing climate and environmental issues have become a daily reality, the urgency of environmental action may provide the blueprint for competing in heavily Republican districts.
The crisis in southwest Florida is a familiar one, even if its scale is unprecedented. Lake Okeechobee, southern Florida’s largest lake, fills up with pollution from the nearby sugar plantations every year. When rains hit in May, the lake swells behind a feeble and aging dike, and the Army Corps of Engineers, needing to protect the nearby towns, releases the slurry to the ocean. This year, however, record rains combined with the heat and a warmer-than-average Gulf to create an algal explosion of historic proportions. The current red tide has already lasted longer than any other in over a decade, with no signs of abating.
In response, Rick Scott, who is serving out his last term as governor, announced that he’d be touring the blighted St. Lucie River region and earmarking an extra $700,000 to the clean-up efforts. Protesters filled the dock hoping to meet with the governor, but Scott refused to speak with them or the media. He ended up embarking on his boat tour from a different location than was initially announced, peaking frustrations even further.
Scott has long been a target for environmental protesters. After his election in 2010, he wasted no time bulldozing environmental protections that had been decades in the bipartisan making. He gutted the state’s five regional water management districts, slashing their budgets by $700 million and packing their appointed boards with developers. He oversaw the firing of 134 employees at Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. Taking up the mantle of big polluters, he battled and eventually bested the EPA on the implementation of clean water standards.
In 2012, Scott killed a statewide septic tank inspection program and an initiative that would’ve rehabilitated polluted freshwater springs. His appointees on the enfeebled South Florida Water Management District scuttled plans to buy 46,800 acres of sugar company land where the state had once planned to build giant retention ponds to store and filter polluted lake water. Under his watch, spending for Florida Forever, the state’s land conservation program, plunged from $100 million a year in Scott’s first year to a paltry $17 million by 2013. And in 2016, Scott signed into law weaker standards for toxic chemicals that flow into Florida’s rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, a bill described as allowing “Big Ag to police itself when it comes to fertilizer pollution.”
Any of these protections could conceivably have mitigated the damage now being visited upon the southern Florida coastline and its residents. Instead, more pollution, less oversight, and a depleted budget for remediation set the stage for the current algal explosion.
One might expect Nelson’s campaign to be hammering Scott on the issue: They have ample material, ready to be spliced together in attack ads that touch on his environmental record and coziness with the state’s most egregious polluters. In recent years, the Republican governor has accepted over $600,000 from the sugar industry. In 2013, he took a trip to King Ranch in Texas, a famous private hunting lodge, for which Big Sugar generously footed the bill.
But it was the Scott campaign that struck the first big blow, running an ad last week that laid responsibility for Lake Okeechobee and the algal blooms at Nelson’s feet.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake’s dike, is a federal entity, so Nelson, the ad suggests, is to blame based on his time in the Senate. Five days later, the Nelson campaign punched back with a 30-second, text-over-video spot of its own titled “Algae.” “Rick Scott cut environmental protections and gave polluters a pass,” the ad proclaims in block letters atop a slideshow of sludge. “The water is murky, but the fact is clear.”
Unfortunately for Democrats, Nelson isn’t in the strongest position to criticize Scott. He’s proposed bills to study algae, cut Lake Okeechobee discharges, and automatically authorized the Army Corps to start Everglades restoration projects without congressional approval, but none of them has been successful. And when eleven environmental groups petitioned Nelson to get on board with the bipartisan Sugar Policy Modernization Act, which would have curtailed some of the sweetheart price guarantees the sugar industry currently enjoys, Nelson declined.
In fact, campaign finance records show that for 2018, only four senators have accepted more in contribution money from Big Sugar than Bill Nelson. (One of them is fellow Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the only Republican on the list.)
Still, the fight over the algal bloom shows that Democrats can leverage environmental issues into powerful campaign messages. With climate-fueled crises breaking out in every corner of the country, from fires in Northern California to heatwaves in the Midwest, there has never been a better moment to hammer a candidate who forbade his employees from using the words “climate change” at all, as Scott infamously did. This is especially the case with public opinion beginning to coalesce around climate issues. A recent survey found that 73 percent of Americans now believe there’s solid evidence of global warming, and 60 percent think it’s due to human causes, a notable increase since 2010, when Scott first took office.
The issue is particularly salient in the South, the American region hit hardest by climate change and home to the country’s laxest environmental standards. “We think an emphasis on environmental issues will benefit Democrats up and down the ticket, especially as Florida continues to be inundated by flooding from hurricanes in the last few years, with millions of gallons of sewage going into our waterways, Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico,” notes Jake Sanders, the president of the Florida Young Democrats.
In swing states like Florida, where Donald Trump won by 100,000 votes, as well as environmentally afflicted red-wall states like Louisiana, there are millions of Americans for whom a robust green policy charter could be attractive. “People in these places understand that things are changing rapidly right in front of their eyes, and it’s raised awareness to a level it’s never been before,” says Denis Dison of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Action Fund.
To pull off such climate-focused campaigns, though, Southern Democrats, particularly in states like Florida, have to take strong stances on climate issues. Nelson has bright spots on his environmental record—he fought to ban oil drilling off the Florida coast, and he sported a 95 percent voting score from the League of Conservation Voters in 2017. But he would be in a far stronger position on the red tide crisis if he’d endorsed a bolder spate of green policies, such as a major remediation plan for Florida’s waterways and stiffer punishments for polluters.
There are signs that he’s taking the hint. During a recent visit to one of Lake Okeechobee’s most polluted waterways, Nelson, more wonk than firebrand, mustered this: “I was playing nice-nice when I was here before, but I’m going to lay out the truth. Governor Scott, in the last eight years, has systematically dismembered and dismantled the environmental agencies of the state of Florida.”
Ah me! I find myself middle-aged divorced lost
In the forest dark of my failures mortgage &
It’s hard to admit nobody wants to do me anymore
Not even Virgil will lead me down to his
Take a look at my firstborn son
Who put me on three months’ bedrest
For whom I bled on the emergency room floor
Who declaims his device sucks
Stabs holes in his bedroom wall
Complains his ATV’s too slow
Who plots to run away to join terrorists
He’d rather die than do math
And the little one ripped
From my womb in the surgery room
I pierced my nipples to unblock her milk
Who pours lemonade on the floor for skating
Howls in rage cause her cake isn’t pretty
Carved No Mom on her door with scissors
Who says, No fence but you’re kinda fat
She’d rather die than wear underpants
Virgil, hey! Send me down
To the second circle of hell where I belong
With those whom Love separated from Reason
Where an infernal hurricane will blast me
Hither & thither with no hope ever no comfort
Rather than drive these two to school this morning
And suffer forever with the other mothers
This weekend, headlines across the internet announced that the British Museum was to “return looted antiquities to Iraq.” Eight tiny artifacts, some of them 5,000 years old, were handed to Iraqi officials in a ceremony on Friday, to be transported to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. But the antiquities were not, as the headlines implied, a part of the British Museum’s own collection; they were just identified there after police seized them from a dealer. The distinction is crucial, because the Museum houses one of the largest permanent collections of human culture on earth, some of which came from the old-school kind of “looting”—colonialism.
According to the Museum’s press release, the objects consist of an Achaemenid stamp seal; two stamp-seal amulets “in the form of a reclining sheep or showing a pair of quadrupeds facing in opposite directions”; and five Sumerian artifacts. Three of these objects are clay cones inscribed with the sentence, “For Ningirsu, Enlil’s mighty warrior, Gudea, ruler of Lagash, made things function as they should (and) he built and restored for him his Eninnu, the White Thunderbird.” The inscription locates the objects as originally part of the Enninu temple of the Sumerian god Ningirsu.
The objects were seized by the London police in 2003 from a dealer who could not provide proof of ownership (and who is no longer in business). They were not among the treasures stolen from the National Museum of Iraq in 2003, but rather come from Tello in southern Iraq, where the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu once stood. The press release emphasized that the objects were identified “thanks to the British Museum’s Iraq Scheme,” which was founded in 2015 “in response to the appalling destruction by Daesh (also known as so-called Islamic State, ISIS or IS) of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.” The program “builds capacity in the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage by training 50 of its staff in a wide variety of sophisticated techniques of retrieval and rescue archaeology.”
The scheme is no doubt an important one, and the region’s artifacts have been, no doubt, in danger. But as the media picked up the story of the handover, a strange impression arose: that the British Museum gave something back. The British Museum never gives anything back.
The story recalls last year’s flurry of articles promising the British Museum’s return of ancient sculptures to Nigeria and Benin. The Benin bronzes, as they’re known, were looted by the British in 1897 while they destroyed Benin City. The destruction was meted out as punishment for Oba Ovonramwen’s defiance, as he insisted on charging the colonizers custom duties. The Guardian and other outlets described excitement over a summit, planned for 2018, during which the British Museum might hand back the stolen treasures. British officials this year have so far only offered to loan the artifacts to Nigerian museums.
Many items in the Museum’s collection have similarly dodgy histories. In 2015, an exhibition called “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilization” displayed items acquired after the British occupied Australia in the early eighteenth century and, over the course of the next 200 years, massacred thousands of its aboriginal inhabitants.
The most famous controversy over the Museum’s collection centers around the so-called “Elgin marbles,” named for Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who obtained treasures of the Parthenon as a favor from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and transported them to England. The longstanding argument for his actions, both then and now, is that the marbles were moved in order to preserve their integrity. Though this argument is not without its merits (and its holes), it’s not the overarching issue for British authorities. The real problem, I think, is the scale of restitution that could open up once a precedent is set. Responding to India’s call for the return of the Koh-i-noor diamond in 2013, for example, former Prime Minister David Cameron said, “I certainly don’t believe in ‘returnism,’ as it were. I don’t think that’s sensible.”
So, reading the news that the British Museum would “return” anything came as something of a surprise. The British Empire’s violent colonial actions are not regularly subject to re-examination. Tony Blair said in 1997 that the empire should be the subject of neither “apology nor hand-wringing.” In 2011, Cameron told his party that “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with armbands on” (armbands are British for floaties). It was 2013 before the U.K. acknowledged its torture and murder of the Mau Mau people in the 1950s, and agreed to pay compensation to survivors.
This week’s headlines invoked a fantasy version of the British Museum’s role in international relations. The director of the museum may have shaken hands with Iraq’s ambassador to the U.K., but he has not performed a genuine act of restitution. The British Museum has been styled in the press (and styled itself in its own press release) as a bulwark against looting. But the museum is a cathedral to the practice. The presence of the rest of the collection cast a long shadow over proceedings on Friday, and it showed the “return” for what it was: A simple case of stolen goods, intercepted.
On Twitter, where his handle is @IronStache, Randy Bryce seems like he’s already the Democratic nominee for Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district—retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat. He isn’t. Bryce, a union ironworker who found unlikely fame through a series of online campaign videos, faces a primary challenge from Janesville educator Cathy Myers. Voters will decide the winner on Tuesday.
The race has been nasty. Myers, a labor activist like Bryce, has run a negative campaign, highlighting Bryce’s history of debt and his nine arrests, including a 1988 drunk-driving charge to which he pleaded guilty. (Two arrests occurred while he was protesting Ryan and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, respectively.) Myers has her own baggage. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently reported that she’s been accused of a conflict of interest for her involvement in a complicated, two-year legal battle between her campaign manager, Dennis Hughes, and her former boyfriend, Roger Merry, while she sat on the Janesville school board. The paper also reported that Myers may have improperly benefited from a $6,000 per year tax deduction on a home she owned in Illinois while she lived and voted in Wisconsin.
Myers could well beat Bryce in Tuesday’s primary election. In July, the Republican-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund released a poll showing “the two terrible candidates” locked in a near dead heat, with a third of voters still undecided. CLF has a clear interest in portraying the race as a choice between two losers, but that doesn’t mean the CLF’s polling numbers are necessarily inaccurate. If Bryce loses on Tuesday, or barely wins, he’ll add a data point to an emerging trend: Viral fame can help a candidate gain recognition, credibility, and donations, but that doesn’t always translate to electoral victory.
Bryce became Internet famous more than a year ago, before Ryan had announced his retirement. Ryan was a shoo-in for re-election, and Bryce was a protest candidate—a symbolically potent one, but ultimately fated to lose. Bryce’s initial ad in June 2017, produced by Democratic strategists Bill Hyers and Matt McLaughlin, challenged Ryan’s inevitability and presented “Iron Stache” as a left-wing blue-collar champion: committed to unions and motivated by personal experience to fix America’s broken health care system. Within days, the ad had been viewed more than half a million times and raised more than $400,000 for the campaign, which followed with several more compelling ads, though few approached the popularity of his campaign announcement. By December, the campaign’s own polling had Bryce within 6 points of Ryan.
There were, and still are, challenges. According to Politico, that internal polling revealed that 79 percent of likely voters didn’t know enough about Bryce to have an opinion of him. This April, Bryce’s chances improved considerably when Ryan announced he wouldn’t run for re-election, but attacks from Myers and Republicans alike may dented his momentum. Alternatively, Bryce may have never had much real momentum at all. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to gauge the causal relationship between political celebrity and electoral viability.
The internet didn’t change campaign ads themselves, so much as change how they’re distributed. No longer do campaigns have to rely on TV, blindly running ads that in the hopes of connecting with voters. Today, campaigns know in a matter of days—sometimes hours—whether an ad is resonating with people. If no one is watching and sharing it, the campaign can cut a new one tomorrow.
But is the ad connecting with the right people—actual voters in the district rather than political junkies across America? That’s harder to know.
Thematically, Bryce’s ads bear some resemblance to Democratic candidate Amy McGrath’s debut ad for her primary run in Kentucky’s 6th congressional district. McGrath’s ad, which has been viewed nearly 2 million times, was produced by Democratic strategist Mark Putnam and documents her experience as the first female U.S. Marine to fly an F-18 fighter jet in combat. The congressional campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Kaniela Ing of Hawaii also made ads—both produced by Means of Production, a democratic-socialist production company—that went viral, racking up over 580,000 and 442,000 views, respectively. Neither ad appeared on television.
McGrath won her primary. Ing trended on Twitter the day of his primary, but pulled just 6 percent of the vote. Ocasio-Cortez has emphasized the success of her door-to-door canvassing efforts, rather than her videos, as key to her upset of Congressman Joe Crowley. Other left-wing candidates did well without ever going viral. Rashida Tlaib’s most popular video on YouTube has barely more than 3,000 views, but she just won the Democratic primary in Michigan’s 13th congressional district. Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist in West Virginia, lost her primary challenge to incumbent Senator Joe Manchin, but she managed to get 30 percent of the vote without even producing an ad, it seems.
If viral ads reliably accomplish anything at all, perhaps it’s a different kind of political work. Ing’s last ad, which Slate called “the most remarkable political ad of 2018,” might be the clearest example. “If you ask people the question, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about finances and you had your basic needs met?’ the answers are amazing,” Ing says, while strumming a ukulele on a beach. “People would start businesses. They’d get into art, they’d get into music and all these things that are lacking in our world. All this stuff is possible.” Ing’s ad didn’t win him the election, but it did advance his ideas. It expanded people’s political imagination. So have Bryce’s ads, whether or not he wins on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump’s proposal last month to weaken the Endangered Species Act has sparked a familiar debate. Environmentalists say he’s shilling for the fossil fuel and logging industries, which seek to exploit federally protected land. Those industries say environmentalists are overreacting—that loosening the law’s requirements will allow economic development alongside species protection.
But one group with a big stake in the Endangered Species Act’s future hasn’t caught much attention. Trophy hunters—those who hunt large, often endangered or threatened wild animals in order to keep and display their carcasses—are applauding the idea of a weakened Endangered Species Act, which may make it easier to import dead leopards, giraffes, and other exotic animals to the United States.
The law, which was passed in 1973, bans the import of trophies for endangered or threatened species. The Trump administration, however, is proposing to repeal automatic protection for the latter category. (Threatened species are at less risk of extinction than endangered species.) If that happened, any newly designated threatened species would not receive protection from trophy hunting unless the Trump administration created a special regulation.
Animals rights advocates say this is particularly worrisome for the giraffe. As the population of the world’s tallest mammal has plummeted, groups have petitioned for the giraffe to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. It’s likely that the giraffe will only be granted threatened status—meaning it won’t get trophy hunting protections. Giraffe trophies are highly sought after by Americans, with an average of around one animal imported per day, according to NPR.
If the proposed change to the Endangered Species Act goes through, it would be just the latest favor to the trophy hunting community. Under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reversed a host of bans on big-game imports, including elephant and lion carcasses from several African countries including Zimbabwe and Zambia. As such, Zinke has granted more than three dozen import permits for dead lions, some from previously banned countries, during his tenure. Zinke has also created an wildlife conservation council for the sole purpose of promoting trophy hunting, and stacked it with trophy hunters and gun advocates.
Taken together, animals rights activists say, these actions have created the most friendly policy environment for trophy hunting in at least a decade.
This is not what the trophy hunting community expected of Trump, despite his two eldest sons’ affinity for the practice. Last year, he tweeted:
Trump has argued elsewhere against the conservation argument for trophy hunting, which is thus: Hunters pay large sums of money to governments and conservation organizations for the privilege of hunting the animals, thus helping to fund the management and protection of the species. “People can talk all they want about preservation and all of the things that they’re saying where money goes toward,” Trump told Piers Morgan in January. He said that foreign governments probably don’t use the money properly.
Why, then, would Zinke continue on this crusade? “Safari Club International has fully infiltrated this administration,” said Anna Frostic, a senior wildlife attorney at the Humane Society, referring to the international hunting group (of which Walter Palmer, who killed Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe in 2015, was a member).
Zinke, a lifelong hunter, has longstanding ties to SCI, stemming back to his days in Congress. He received $14,5000 in congressional campaign donations from the group, “spoke at [its] 2016 veterans breakfast, had a notable photo-op with its director of litigation on his first day as head of the Interior Department, and dined with its vice president in Alaska earlier this year,” according to HuffPost. Zinke is close with other hunting advocacy groups, too. Last summer, he received a policy wish list from eight trophy hunting organizations, asking him to roll back several Obama-era regulations on the practice.
Today, Zinke is making progress on that wish list. He’s already accomplished the first ask—to reverse the ban on lion and elephant trophies. Now, he’s working on the second request—to repeal the automatic trophy hunting protection for threatened species. The wish list, according to HuffPost, also asked Zinke “to reject a petition calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list all African leopards as endangered under the ESA and restrict hunters from importing their parts,” and it “called for Zinke to revise seizure and forfeiture practices that they say ‘discourage lawful tourist hunting.’”
The impact of Zinke’s policies is opaque, though, because the Fish and Wildlife Service won’t say how many animal trophies are being imported into the U.S., and who is importing them. “I’ve routinely submitted FOIA requests for precisely that information,” Frostic said. “I still don’t have a full request fulfilled from May of 2017.” Last month, the group Friends of Animals obtained documents showing that 38 lion trophies had been imported between 2016 and 2018. Of the 33 people who imported those trophies, at least half had donated to Republican lawmakers or were affiliated with SCI, the group claimed.
These actions haven’t gone completely unnoticed. In March, dozens of House Democrats sent a letter to Zinke, asking that he “halt all trophy imports, initiate a full regulatory process for the policies, make license issuances public and require annual reports from countries where FWS will allow imports,” according to The Hill. Two Democratic senators sent a similar letter. Animal welfare groups have filed legal actions against the Interior Department, too, over its decision to allow elephant trophy imports and its pro-hunting wildlife conservation council.
Trump, meanwhile, has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter.
American culture is in love with murder. It has always been this way: People like watching killers cavort in the movies, and trashy true-crime documentaries pull in the numbers. There’s a whole network called Crime & Investigation. But our obsession with murder took a new turn with 2014’s Serial, which elevated the practice of turning a real murder—a real death—into a form of entertainment. It let middle-to-high-brow consumers feel better about their voyeurism. If they were interested in the narrative problems of the crime, the listener was no longer obsessing over lurid violence; they were considering the relation between truth, language, and reality. Or something like that.
A new TV show called I Am A Killer pushes the genre to the absolute limit of acceptability—then goes right across it, arriving at the gruesome apotheosis of our obsession with killers and killing. The show (produced by Sky Vision and distributed by Netflix) is a documentary series that interviews a different man on death row in each episode. The show represents the crossing of a cultural rubicon, the transformation of something abnormal into ordinary entertainment.
I Am A Killer dresses the murders in a cloak of unreliable narrative. In each episode we first see the convicted man speak directly to the camera. In episode four, Miguel Angel Martinez of Laredo, Texas, describes how, at the age of 17, he entered the home of James Smiley, a man he had previously lived with. Martinez brought two friends, Manuel “Milo” Flores (also 17) and Miguel Angel Venegas, Jr. (16). Martinez and Venegas killed everybody in there and Flores brought along the weapons. On the way out Venegas turned a crucifix by Smiley’s bed upside down.
Martinez is the focus, at first. He has charismatic eyes, in that they’re sort of sexy and frightening at the same time. He explains that he intended to only rob the place with his friends, but things just turned. After Martinez’s interview, we then meet various other characters. We meet people who knew Smiley, who mourn his death. We also meet Venegas, who says that when he was 8 years old he “became convinced that [he] was the son of the devil.” To prove this to himself Venegas would fill up a jar with black widow spiders and then pour them on his chest. If he was the son of the devil they wouldn’t bite him. They never did.
All the episodes follow this narrative course. The producers then play for the killer various tapes and interviews they have gathered in the interim. In the case of Martinez, the producers have discovered that James Smiley, with whom Martinez lived as a child, was known to have been a pedophile. This information was deliberately withheld from the early section of the episode, so that the story would have a twist. They play Martinez a tape of Flores’s father explaining that the kids went after a man who seemed like a “good man” but was actually a “bad man.” Martinez loses his composure and seems near tears, but does not explain further. At the end of the episode a title card tells us that Martinez’s death sentence has since been commuted to life in prison—the courts found that a jury has to have been unanimous in passing such a sentence, and his wasn’t.
It’s an unsatisfying conclusion, and in general the show delivers the profound sense of having short-changed all its subjects, from the murderers to the victims. Abuse, murder, capital punishment: Aren’t these the kind of plot points that merit full-length novels, or entire television seasons? That I Am A Killer crams each of these extremely complex crimes into one episode, then moves onto the next, feels like brutalization-by-television, a punishment on top of a punishment.
If there’s an artistic justification for this show, it lies in the old question of unreliable narrators. Inevitably, the murderer’s initial story ends up questioned by other people. Often, the discrepancies are never solved, not even in court. The conviction reflects the dominant narrative, the one the jurors believed the most. I Am A Killer has the interesting side effect of proving that the law’s “version of events” is always just a story. Narrative is what constitutes crime and punishment.
There are also a lot of parallels between the different cases. Often the murderer has been abused as a child, or describes going on a downward spiral after their father dies. Often the murderer makes very piercing eye contact with the camera, even the ones who are being interviewed through glass. People close to the crime very often describe having a “bad feeling” about the day in question, even if there’s no way they could have known what was about to happen. The convicted men often refer to their “case” as if it were something they found themselves in, rather than a crime they committed.
Ultimately, the show’s most compelling moments are the absurd ones. In episode one, for example, we meet James Robertson, a man jailed for a more minor crime who eventually murdered his cellmate in order to get housed on death row (he says the conditions are better there). The Florida Department of Corrections gave him his wish. Later, we meet his lawyer, who likes to spend his spare time driving around on a boat called The Defense Rests.
Still, this kind of television is not normal, for want of a better term. There are good reasons for depriving convicted murderers of screen time. In the case of a Texan named Charles Thompson, for example, we meet the foreman of the jury who sentenced him to death. “He’s narcissistic, he enjoys the attention,” she says. These men will glory in their brief moment of celebrity. They’re all lit well, and allowed to deliver their own version of events, in their own words. Is this how justice is supposed to work, with TV supplementing the courts in the battle for a criminal’s reputation?
In this, I Am A Killer struggles to justify its own existence. Convictions are made of narrative, true, and there is always “more than one side to the story.” Broadcasting the soon-to-be-gone stories of soon-to-be-dead men, however, is cruel and unusual business.
Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees are often described as “battles,” but they usually turn out to be dramatic theater rather than a theater of war. Nominees are more than happy to discuss abstract legal principles or their previous rulings as judges, but they invariably decline to answer questions about how they would rule on specific cases or controversies in the future.
The two-step dance between senators and nominees is known today as the Ginsburg standard, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as a result of John Roberts’s confirmation hearings in 2005. His supporters argued that because Senate Democrats did not press Ginsburg after she declined to answer certain questions about her views in her 1993 hearing, he should receive a similar amount of latitude from them. Since then, senators on both sides have generally recognized this standard, even if they still try to trip up a nominee from the opposing side.
This standard is not necessarily a bad thing. It helps preserve the American tradition of judicial independence by denying senators the opportunity to extort pledges or promises in certain cases before approving a nomination. A judge who forecasts how he or she would rule in specific matters would also deprive future litigants of their right to have cases heard before a fair and impartial court.
But the Ginsburg standard also turns judicial confirmation hearings—and especially Supreme Court confirmation hearings—into a tedious, rote affair. Senators will ask a nominee’s views on subjects ranging from abortion rights to marriage equality to affirmative action. The nominee will decline to answer, citing the same reasons given by prospective justices before them. Senators will ask whether the nominee thinks cases like Roe v. Wade are still the law of the land. The nominee will give a heartfelt answer on how the American legal system values the weight of legal precedent and avoid saying how he or she would change those precedents.
Expect more of the same when Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s pick to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee in early September. Senators will question him extensively about the cases and decisions in which he’s taken part in his twelve years of service on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Fortunately for Democrats, who will begin meeting with Kavanaugh privately on Wednesday after a weeks-long boycott, there are other ways to explore his views on major issues than to probe his time on the bench. He has an extensive record of government service predating his judicial career that is worth deeper scrutiny before handing him a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.
With that in mind, here are some questions that Democrats could ask Kavanaugh that he might feel compelled to answer, rather than parry.
One issue beyond Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence that senators can raise is sexual harassment in the federal judiciary. Kavanaugh once clerked for former Judge Alex Kozinski, who served in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Kozinski was one of the most influential federal judges of his era, for both his judicial writings and for his role as a “feeder”—one of the select few judges whose clerks often go on to become Supreme Court clerks. Last fall, at least 15 women came forward with accounts of sexual harassment by Kozinski, some of whom were his former clerks. He resigned from the bench in December.
Since then, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono has asked every judicial nominee whether they have committed sexual harassment in their careers during their confirmation hearing. Kavanaugh will almost certainly be asked the same question by Hirono. Because of his past work for Kozinski, he could also face scrutiny for what he saw during his Ninth Circuit clerkship and what he did about it. The questions could include:
The Clinton investigation
After his clerkships ended, Kavanaugh spent some time in private practice before returning to government work. He spent most of the 1990s working for independent counsel Ken Starr, who oversaw the investigations into Whitewater and other Clinton administration scandals. Starr eventually concluded that Clinton had perjured himself before a federal grand jury and obstructed justice to conceal his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Kavanaugh helped Starr draft his report for Congress, which led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1998. The Senate acquitted Clinton on all charges the following year.
Democratic senators will likely take a keen interest in Kavanaugh’s work during this time period for two reasons. First, it offers a rare window into the inner workings of Starr’s investigation. Many Democrats criticized Starr at the time as a partisan effort by Republicans and conservative figures to bring down Clinton’s administration. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Kavanaugh’s work gives Democrats an opportunity to question him on issues that may resurface in the Russia investigation. That includes key questions about whether a president can be compelled to testify before a grand jury—Clinton agreed to do so in the Lewinsky saga to avoid a court battle—and whether presidents can commit obstruction of justice.
The Bush White House
Perhaps the area of greatest scrutiny from Democrats will be Kavanaugh’s work in the White House under George W. Bush. From 2001 to 2003, he worked in the White House counsel’s office, which handles legal matters related to the office of the presidency itself. Kavanaugh then worked as the White House staff secretary from 2003 to 2006. The role is an important one in any White House: The staff secretary oversees the flow of papers to and from the president. Kavanaugh’s defenders have characterized the role as one akin to a “traffic cop,” while others have contended that an effective staff secretary can play a subtle but influential role in policymaking decisions.
Democrats and Republicans have clashed over Kavanaugh’s paper trail from that era since his confirmation battle began. The National Archives told senators, earlier this month, that this likely wouldn’t be available until the end of October. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, subsequently scheduled Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing for early September, meaning that senators won’t have access to all of the requested documents before they question him in three weeks. Grassley also rejected Democrats’ bid to seek Kavanaugh’s records from his time as staff secretary, which amounts to more than a million pages. Republicans have dismissed those efforts as frivolous, while Democrats have suggested that Republicans are trying to hide something.
In their questions for Kavanaugh, senators will likely ask questions about the thousands of pages that have already been released. They may also ask more broadly about the role Kavanaugh played in some of the Bush administration’s most controversial policies, including Guantanamo Bay detainees, warrantless surveillance programs, and torture.
Kavanaugh has already drawn extensive scrutiny for his writings and remarks over the past 20 years. It’s not uncommon for Supreme Court nominees to face questions about this type of work: Neil Gorsuch, for example, fielded numerous questions last year about a 2006 bioethics book he had written from senators who hoped to glean some insight into his views on abortion rights. For Kavanaugh, the issue is executive power. I noted last month that some of his writings and comments point toward an extraordinary degree of deference to the executive branch and its whims. With Donald Trump in the White House and special counsel Robert Mueller investigating him, Kavanaugh’s views of the presidency’s powers have taken on an even greater significance.
To that end, senators will also spend time questioning Kavanaugh about the process by which he became a nominee for the Supreme Court. Trump is known for making ethically dubious requests in private conversations with government officials, and Democrats will want Kavanaugh’s assurances under oath that nothing amiss took place when the White House weighed him for the post. Democrats may also try to pry into the Trump White House’s work with conservative legal groups to select a Supreme Court nominee, including work by Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society executive vice president who played an influential role in the shaping the Supreme Court’s current membership.
If recent history is any guide, Kavanaugh’s hearings will stretch on for three or four days and, despite Democrats’ designs to the contrary, he will be confirmed. The senators can spend that time engaging in a predictable back-and-forth with him about hypothetical scenarios involving major precedents, or they can grill him with concrete questions about his professional past that he won’t be able to evade so easily. The public would be much better served by the latter.
On a frigid December day in 2017, Oleg Kalugin opens the door of his house in Rockville, Maryland, an upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., to meet me. Nothing in particular distinguishes his split-level suburban home from those of the other professionals in the neighborhood, but the man who lives there is very much out of the ordinary, a former KGB spymaster who is now an American citizen.
Born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Kalugin, at 83, now lives just half an hour’s drive from the White House, which for decades was dead center in the crosshairs of the KGB, the dreaded secret security forces he served as head of counterintelligence. A genial host, Kalugin gives a guided tour of his sprawling library spread over three rooms and reveals himself to be a man of history, a veritable Zelig of the Cold War.
When it comes to Soviet leaders Yuri Andropov, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin, Kalugin knew them all and can regale you for hours with stories about them. He was even the boss of a promising young KGB officer named Vladimir Putin.
Of medium height, immaculately groomed, clad in dark blue slacks, a striped shirt, and a light blue jacket, Kalugin was congenial and utterly disarming when I met him. As John le Carré wrote, when he interviewed Kalugin nearly 25 years ago, he is “one of those former enemies of Western democracy who have made a seamless transition from their side to ours. To listen to him you could be forgiven for assuming that we had been on the same side all along.”
Kalugin is of special interest these days because his experience as head of counterintelligence for the KGB makes him a master of the tradecraft that was used to ensnare Donald Trump. The operation began during a 1978 trip to Czechoslovakia not long after Trump’s marriage to Ivana, in which the newlyweds piqued the interest of the Czech Ministry of State Security (also known as the StB) enough that a secret police collaborator began observing Ivana and met several times with her in later years.
Keeping tabs on Czechs who had left the country was standard operating procedure for the StB. “The State Security was constantly watching [Czechoslovak citizens living abroad],” said Libor Svoboda, a historian from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague. “They were coming here, so they used agents to follow them. They wanted to know who they were meeting, what they talked about. It was a sort of paranoia. They were afraid that these people could work for foreign intelligence agencies. They used the same approach toward their relatives as well.”
According to the German newspaper Bild, starting in 1979, encrypted StB files say, “the phone calls between Ivana and her father were to be wiretapped at least once per year. Their mail exchange was monitored.” The agent who reported on Ivana used the code names of “Langr” and “Chod.” The StB files are stamped “top secret,” bear the code names “Slusovice,” “America,” and “Capital,” and indicate an ongoing attempt to gather as much information about Trump as possible.
“The StB thought there was a chance that the U.S. intelligence agencies could use (Ivana Trump). And also they wanted to use Trump to gather information on U.S. high society,” said Svoboda.
The StB archives also show that Ivana’s father, Miloš Zelníček, was monitored by the secret services and that during his 1977 trip to the U.S. for Ivana’s wedding, Zelníček was subject to an StB-ordered search of his possessions at the airport. “He provided information that the secret police found out anyway from other sources,” said Petr Blažek of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, who suggested that the search was a warning shot telling Zelníček that cooperation was the only way such trips would be permitted in the future.
Far from handing over compromising materials, Zelníček may have simply delivered the minimal amount of information necessary to keep the StB off his back. “Ivana’s father was registered as a confidant of the StB,” Czech historian Tomas Vilimek told the Guardian. “However, that does not mean he was an agent. The CSSR authorities forced him to talk to them because of his journeys to the U.S. and his daughter. Otherwise, he would not have been allowed to fly.”
In the end, we do not know exactly when the KGB first opened a file on Donald Trump. But it would have been common practice for the Czech secret police to share their intelligence on the Trumps with the KGB. More to the point, Trump was so highly valued as a target that the StB later sent a spy to the U.S. to monitor his political prospects for more than a decade.
It’s unclear how much Trump himself knew about his in-laws’ encounters with Czech intelligence, but when Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, rose to power in 1985, and put forth the policies of perestroika (literally “restructuring” in Russian) and glasnost (“openness”), which eased the tensions of the Cold War, Trump became deeply infected with a severe case of Russophilia.
In the past, his participation in politics had been confined to getting his mentor Roy Cohn to push through tax abatements, changes to zoning restrictions, and the like—or making political donations to accomplish such goals. Suddenly, Trump reinvented himself as a pseudo-authority on nuclear arms and asserted that he could play a key role in strategic arms limitations.
Trump took the issue up in an interview with journalist Ron Rosenbaum in the November 1985 issue of Manhattan, Inc. magazine, in which he asserted of nuclear proliferation, “Nothing matters as much to me now”—an extraordinarily unlikely passion for a man who personified conspicuous consumption.
Trump started by telling Rosenbaum about his late uncle John Trump, an MIT professor, who explained that nuclear technology was becoming so simplified that “someday it’ll be like making a bomb in the basement of your house. And that’s a very frightening statement coming from a man who’s totally versed in it.”
What was taking place was decidedly un-Trumpian. Rosenbaum, who was anything but a Trump enthusiast, said the real estate developer “seemed genuinely aware of just how much danger nukes put the world in.” He even passed up a chance to tout the glories of Trump Tower. Instead, Rosenbaum told me, Donald Trump preferred to be seen as being in “on some serious stuff. The fact that his uncle was a nuclear scientist gave him the right to make these pronouncements.”
Trump made a similar pitch to The Washington Post. “Some people have an ability to negotiate,” he told the paper. “It’s an art you’re basically born with. You either have it or you don’t.”
Lack of confidence was not his problem. “It would take an hour-and-a-half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” he said. “I think I know most of it anyway.”
Which did not mean Trump was above seeking out expertise. A few months later, according to The Hollywood Reporter, in 1986, he insisted on meeting Bernard Lown, a Boston cardiologist best known for inventing the defibrillator and sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Yevgeny Chazov, the personal physician for Mikhail Gorbachev.
After accepting their Nobel medals in Oslo, Lown and Chazov went to Moscow and spent time with Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader. Not long after he returned to the United States, Lown got a message from Trump. At the time, Lown had never even heard of him but secretly hoped Trump might contribute to the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation, which was low on funds at the time.
They met in Trump’s offices on the 26th floor of Trump Tower. “I arrived totally ignorant about his motives,” Lown told me. “We sat down for lunch and Trump was very grim looking, very serious.”
“Tell me everything you know about Gorbachev,” Trump said.
After 20 minutes or so recounting his experience with the Soviet leader, however, Lown became painfully aware that Trump wasn’t listening. “I realized he had a short attention span,” Lown said. “I thought there was another agenda, perhaps, but I didn’t know what that was.”
Lown cut to the chase. “Why do you want to know?” he asked Trump.
At that, Trump revealed his grand plan. “If I know about Gorbachev, I can ask my good friend Ronnie to make me a plenipotentiary ambassador for the United States with Gorbachev.”
“Ronnie?” Lown asked.
Lown was unaware that Trump had retained the powerful lobbying firm of Black, Manafort & Stone shortly after it opened shop in 1980, and its three name partners—Charles Black, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone—had just played vital roles in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide victory.
“Ronald Reagan,” Trump explained.
Then he clapped his hands together, Lown says, and went on to say how within one hour of meeting Gorbachev, he would end the Cold War.
“The arrogance of the man, and his ignorance about the complexities of one of the complicating issues confronting mankind! The idea that he could solve it in one hour!”
Thanks to Gorbachev, the Russian bear had finally put on a friendly face, but the KGB had not. It remained the most effective and most feared intelligence-gathering organization in the world with more than 400,000 officers inside the Soviet Union and another 200,000 border guards, not to mention an enormous network of informers. And that didn’t even include the First Chief Directorate (FCD), the relatively small but prestigious division in charge of gathering foreign intelligence. It had about 12,000 officers and was headed by General Vladimir Kryuchkov, a hard-liner who seemed to be swimming against the tides of history.
Gorbachev’s dovish overtures to the West notwithstanding, Kryuchkov, according to ex-KGB general Oleg Kalugin, was still very much “a true believer until the end, eternally suspicious of the West and capitalism.”
Kryuchkov is of special interest not simply because of his unreconstructed hard-line views. Thanks to a compendium of his memos during this period entitled “Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975–1985,” we know that by 1984 he was deeply concerned that the KGB had failed to recruit enough American agents. To Kryuchkov, absolutely nothing was more important, and he ordered his officers to cultivate as assets not just the usual leftist suspects, who might have ideological sympathies with the Soviets, but also various influential people such as prominent businessmen.
And so, as if orchestrated by Kryuchkov, the political education of Donald Trump began in March 1986, when he met the Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations Yuri Dubinin and his daughter Natalia Dubinina. Dubinina, who was part of the Soviet delegation to the U.N., was an interesting figure herself in that the Soviet mission was widely known to harbor KGB agents. As she told the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, when her father arrived in New York City for his very first visit, she took him on a tour, and one of the first buildings they saw was Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
Natalia said her father “never saw anything like [Trump Tower], that he was so impressed that he decided he had to meet the building’s owner at once.” And so, Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin and his daughter Natalia, in a highly unusual breach of protocol, went into Trump Tower, took the elevator up to Trump’s office, and paid him a visit.
It is unclear whether prior arrangements were made to set up this extremely irregular meeting between a highly placed Soviet diplomat and Trump. But a few months later, at a luncheon given by cosmetics magnate Leonard Lauder, Trump happened to be seated next to Yuri Dubinin, who proceeded to flatter the young real estate mogul shamelessly.
Trump later rhapsodized about the conversation in The Art of the Deal. “[O]ne thing led to another,” he wrote, “and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government.”
For the KGB, Kalugin told me, recruiting a new asset “always starts with innocent conversation” like this.
As Natalia Dubinina explained, the Russians were off to an auspicious start. “Trump melted at once,” she said. “He is an emotional person, somewhat impulsive. He needs recognition. And, of course, when he gets it he likes it. My father’s visit worked on him [Trump] like honey on a bee.”
As to what Trump was really after in his quest to reinvent himself as a statesman/politician, he may have revealed part of the answer when he told The Washington Post that the man who was egging him on was none other than the mentor he so looked up to, a man for whom motives were simple. Primal. There was always money. There was always a deal. There was always an angle, and a fix.
“You know who really wants me to do this?” Trump asked rhetorically. “Roy [Cohn].”
The more Trump expanded his business and saw the spotlight, the more he sought a bigger stage. In January 1987, Trump received a letter from Ambassador Dubinin that began, “It is a pleasure for me to relay some good news from Moscow.” The letter added that Intourist, the leading Soviet tourist agency, “had expressed interest in pursuing a joint venture to construct and manage a hotel in Moscow.” Vitaly Churkin, who later became ambassador to the U.N., helped Yuri Dubinin set up Trump’s trip.
On July 4, Trump flew to Moscow with Ivana and two assistants. He checked out various potential sites for a hotel, including several near Red Square.
He stayed in a suite in the National Hotel where Vladimir Lenin and his wife had stayed in 1917. According to Viktor Suvorov, an agent for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, “Everything is free. There are good parties with nice girls. It could be a sauna and girls and who knows what else.”
All of which sounded great, except for one thing: Everything was subject to 24-hour surveillance by the KGB.
After the trip, The New York Times reported that while Trump was in Moscow, “he met with the Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The ostensible subject of their meeting was the possible development of luxury hotels in the Soviet Union by Mr. Trump. But Mr. Trump’s calls for nuclear disarmament were also well-known to the Russians.”
But in fact, Trump’s meeting with Gorbachev never really took place. The report, apparently, was merely Trumpian self-promotion. Moreover, there are many unanswered questions about exactly what transpired during Trump’s visit. It is not clear whether Trump understood that Intourist was essentially a branch of the KGB whose job was to spy on high-profile tourists visiting Moscow. “In my time [Intourist] was KGB,” said Viktor Suvorov. “They gave permission for people to visit.”
Nor is it clear if Trump was aware that Intourist routinely sent lists of prospective visitors to the first and second directorates of the KGB based on their visa applications, and that he was almost certainly being bugged.
As to what activities the KGB may have captured in its surveillance, Oleg Kalugin, as the former head of counterterrorism for the KGB, is well versed in the use of video to produce kompromat (or compromising materials), particularly of a sexual nature. At the time, it was a widespread practice for the KGB to hire young women and deploy them as prostitutes to entrap visiting politicians and businessmen, and to use Intourist to monitor foreigners in the Soviet Union and to facilitate such “honey traps.”
“In your world, many times, you ask your young men to stand up and proudly serve their country,” Kalugin once told a reporter. “In Russia, sometimes we ask our women just to lie down.”
Which, according to Kalugin, is what probably happened during Trump’s 1987 trip to Moscow, during which he would have “had many young ladies at his disposal.”
To be clear, Kalugin did not claim to have seen such material or have evidence of its existence but was speaking as the former head of counterintelligence for the KGB, someone more than familiar with its tradecraft and practices. “I would not be surprised if the Russians have, and Trump knows about them, files on him during his trip to Russia and his involvement with meeting young ladies that were controlled [by Soviet intelligence],” he said.
On July 24, 1987, almost immediately after Trump’s return from Moscow, an article appeared in a highly unlikely venue, the Executive Intelligence Review, that strongly suggested something mysterious was going on between him and the Kremlin. “The Soviets are reportedly looking a lot more kindly on a possible presidential bid by Donald Trump, the New York builder who has amassed a fortune through real estate speculation and owns a controlling interest in the notorious, organized-crime linked Resorts International,” the article said. “Trump took an all-expenses-paid jaunt to the Soviet Union in July to discuss building the Russians some luxury hotels.”
Were the Soviets really supporting a Trump run for the presidency? Was Trump seriously considering it? Answers to the second question began to materialize less than two months after his return from Russia, when Trump turned to Roger Stone, a Nixon-era dirty trickster then with the firm of Black, Manafort & Stone, for political advice. Trump had met Stone and his colleague Paul Manafort through Roy Cohn. Although they worked in somewhat different spheres—Cohn was a hardball fixer, Stone a political strategist and lobbyist—to a large extent, they were cut from the same ethically challenged cloth.
Under Stone’s tutelage, on September 1, 1987, just seven weeks after his return from Moscow, Trump suddenly went full steam ahead promoting his newly acquired foreign policy expertise, by paying nearly $100,000 for full-page ads in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The New York Times calling for the United States to stop spending money to defend Japan and the Persian Gulf, “an area of only marginal significance to the U.S. for its oil supplies, but one upon which Japan and others are almost totally dependent.”
The ads, which ran under the headline “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure,” marked Trump’s first foray into a foreign policy that was overtly pro-Russian in the sense that it called for the dismantling of the postwar Western alliance and was very much a precursor of the “America First” policies Trump promoted during his 2016 campaign.
“The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help,” he wrote. “It’s time for us to end our vast deficits by making Japan and others who can afford it, pay. Our world protection is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to these countries and their stake in their protection is far greater than ours.”
Given the extraordinary success of the Western alliance as the underpinning of American foreign policy since World War II, one can only wonder who, if anyone, helped Trump come up with policies that were so favorable to the Soviets. Even more startling, an article published the next day in the Times suggested that Trump might enter the 1988 Republican presidential primaries against George H. W. Bush, then the incumbent vice president. “There is absolutely no plan [for Trump] to run for mayor, governor or United States senator,” said a Trump spokesman. “He will not comment about the presidency.”
That tease—a refusal to comment on a question that no one had asked—did not take place in a complete vacuum, however. Earlier that summer, a Republican activist named Mike Dunbar from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, had approached Trump with a proposal to speak before the Portsmouth Rotary Club, an obligatory stop for presidential candidates in the first presidential primary state. After proclaiming that Vice President George H. W. Bush, the odds-on favorite to be the GOP nominee, and Senator Bob Dole, another contender, were “duds,” Dunbar said that he raised money and collected 1,000 signatures to put Trump on the 1988 primary ballot.
But Bush had a commanding lead in the race for the Republican nomination, and Trump himself had another issue he needed to deal with. Trump had felt Ivana’s awkward English and heavy Czech accent would be liabilities on the campaign trail. It was not a happy relationship and in fact his marriage was an issue he wanted to resolve before making a serious presidential run. Nevertheless, Donald Trump’s presidential quest was under way.
Trump’s White House ambitions did not make an especially deep impression on American voters in the 1980s, but foreign agencies took notice. Several months after Trump’s visit to New Hampshire, Ivana returned to her homeland, where the Czech StB continued to keep a close eye on her. StB agents suggested Ivana was nervous throughout the trip because she believed U.S. embassy officials were following her at a time when she was supposed to be meeting with Czech security operatives. Twice, the American ambassador to Prague, Julian Martin Niemczyk, invited her to visit the embassy. But Ivana declined.
Meanwhile, the Czech secret police filed a classified report dated October 22, 1988, saying that “as a wife of D. TRUMP she receives constant attention ... and any mistake she would make could have immense consequences for him.”
In addition, the StB report made two noteworthy revelations. For the first time, it was clear that Trump had decided he would run for president. The question was timing. “Even though it [his presidential prospects] looks like a utopia,” the awkwardly translated report said, “D. TRUMP is confident he will succeed.” Only 42, the report added, Trump planned to run as an independent candidate in 1996, eight years hence.
Finally, the StB file made one more curious observation about Trump’s political future: It said he was being pressured to run for president. And exactly where was the pressure coming from? Could it have been kompromat from the honey trap in Moscow? Unfortunately, the answer was unclear.
This article was adapted from House of Trump, House of Putin by Craig Unger, published this month by Dutton. Copyright © 2018 by the author.
“They spit when I walked in the street,” Joanna Galilli, 28, a French Jew, told the New York Times late last month. She, like many Jews in recent years, had left a suburb of Paris to move to the 17th arrondissement, a district in the city’s western corner with a growing Jewish population. She lamented a “new anti-Semitism”—one that emanates not from the far right but from Muslims.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish populations, and tension between the two communities isn’t new. But it has gained urgency since March, when Mireille Knoll, an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, was stabbed to death in her Paris apartment by her 28-year-old neighbor, Yacine Mihoub. A 21-year-old homeless man, who was with Mihoub at the crime scene, alleged that he had cried “Allahu Akbar!” as he stabbed Knoll. The grisly act drew up memories of the murder, just a year prior, of 67-year-old Sarah Halimi, a Jewish woman who was beaten to death, also by her neighbor—and in the same area of Paris—who proceeded to throw her body off her third-story balcony while also yelling “Allahu Akbar!” It took the judicial authorities ten months, and significant public pressure, to acknowledge that Halimi’s murder was an anti-Semitic crime.
Knoll’s murder, in contrast, was swiftly labeled as such. Thousands marched across France days after her death to condemn anti-Semitism. A month later, some 300 high-profile public figures, intellectuals and elected officials—past and present, across the political spectrum—signed a controversial manifesto published in French daily Le Parisien denouncing a “new anti-Semitism” perpetuated by Muslims, and lambasted what they called the media’s silence on the issue. Persistent attacks, from vandalism to physical aggressions, have led Jewish families to pull their children out of public schools and change neighborhoods, a trend the authors of the manifesto likened to a “low-volume ethnic cleansing.” French elites, they contended, particularly on the left, use “anti-Zionism as an excuse,” portraying “Jews’ executioners as society’s victims,” all because “crude electoral math suggests the Muslim vote is ten times superior to the Jewish vote.”
French Jews, who are the country’s most-accepted minority—Roma and Muslims are the least—do not face “low-level ethnic cleansing,” and the media has hardly been silent about anti-Semitic violence. But anti-Jewish sentiment is high. Although 89 percent of French people see Jews as “French like the rest,” 35 percent say they “have a particular rapport with money,” 22 percent believe they have “too much power,” and 40 percent believe that “for French Jews, Israel counts more than France.” And while the Interior Ministry logged fewer anti-Jewish crimes in 2017 than in 2016, those that did occur were more violent in nature. Despite constituting roughly one percent of the population, Jews were the victims of more than a third of hate crimes in 2017.
France has been slow to reckon with its history of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac admitted the Vichy government’s “inescapable guilt” in collaborating with the Nazi regime’s atrocities, and only in 2009 did judicial authorities formally recognize France’s role in deporting thousands of Jews during World War II. Late last year, a debate raged over whether to republish the works of the late novelist and pamphleteer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose works are laden with anti-Semitism. And in January, a controversy erupted when Charles Maurras, a virulent anti-Semite who was an active proponent of Vichy-era nationalism, was included in an annual initiative to mark the anniversaries of significant figures and events. The recently renamed far-right National Rally party—formerly the National Front, whose founder and former president Jean-Marie Le Pen, a notorious anti-Semite, called the gas chambers a “detail of history”—won an unprecedented 34 percent of votes in the 2017 election.
It’s also true that since the early 2000s, French Muslims have often been behind anti-Semitic violence, from Mohamed Merah, who opened fire at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, killing a teacher and four students, to Amédy Coulibaly, who took hostages and killed four at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris in 2015, to name but two examples. That worrying trend coincides with an era of rising terrorism on French soil, in many cases perpetuated by nationals claiming to defend a radical interpretation of Islam. This climate, which has stoked general suspicion of Muslims, has bolstered the narrative that contemporary anti-Semitism is an exclusively Muslim phenomenon.
Yet the Muslim perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence tend to invoke the same old tropes about money and power that are widespread among the French population at large. “Anti-Semitism hasn’t changed, it’s alive and well,” Johanna Barasz, a spokesperson for the Dilcrah, a government organization that coordinates efforts to combat racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, told me. “It’s a bit surprising to, on the one hand, see uproar about a ‘new’ anti-Semitism, and on the other, consider it completely fine to republish Céline’s texts,” she went on, describing a “living room anti-Semitism” that not only remains vibrant but “ideologically feeds anti-Semitism among Muslims.”
Violence between French Muslims and Jews has also routinely corresponded to upticks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The notion of a “new anti-Semitism,” then, overlooks both anti-Semitism’s endurance in France—including among non-Muslims—and the way more than a half-century of Jewish-Muslim hostility in the Middle East has played into this trend.
“Especially since the Six-Day War [in 1967], we’ve seen an anti-Jewish vision based on the demonization of Israel and of Zionism,” Pierre-André Taguieff, a director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research, told me in an interview. He attributes that shift to then-President Charles de Gaulle’s denunciation of Israel’s entry into that war, which was fought against Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
That reading hinges on the notion that there is an equivalency, or at least causality, between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. And while some of Israel’s detractors are undeniably galvanized by their hatred of Jews, that is hardly true across the board. Yet in recent years, France’s official positions have helped to conflate the two. The global Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement to get Israel to withdraw from occupied territories, for example, has been illegal in France since 2015 on the grounds that it provokes “discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or group for their religion or belonging to an ethnicity, nation, race or religion.” In a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last summer, French President Emmanuel Macron called anti-Zionism a “reinvented” form of anti-Semitism. That has fueled the confused perception that Jews, by virtue of their religion, are unconditionally tied to Israel and its politics—and accordingly, that they are a legitimate target for anti-Israel sentiment.
For Taguieff, this in part reflects the increasingly religious undertones of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—what he calls an “Islamization of the Palestinian cause,” in which the Islamist Hamas party, which has controlled Gaza since 2006, has deemed “Palestine a Muslim territory,” and, accordingly, transformed opposition to the occupation into a religious rallying point for Muslims across the world. And as Hamas has indeed fused religious zeal into the Palestinian cause, Israel’s leaders, in the throes of an unprecedented rightward shift that has given new credence to religious figures, have adopted a similar strategy. A new law, which declares Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people” and enshrines the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people”—rather than to all citizens—exemplifies this shift. Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalism often seems to trump his concern for anti-Semitism in Europe; in April, the Israeli prime minister congratulated Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who has pursued an anti-Semitic, defamatory campaign against philanthropist George Soros, on his re-election.
The task, then, is not to discount the pressing reality of anti-Semitism in France, but to identify its nuanced sources—from its footing in French society at large to the influence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s clear that something needs to be done,” Barasz said, “but blaming French Muslims for anti-Semitism just fuels the fire. If we leave the debate to the hysterics, to the radicals, we’ll miss our opportunity.”
Corporations have always been “creatures of the State,” as Teddy Roosevelt once called them. But they have become a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, unmoored from their creators to wreak havoc on the countryside. Corporations no longer consider the broad public interest in making decisions, nor do they worry that the state will ever revoke their license to operate. They only consider the desires of their shareholders, which has led to , , soaring inequality, and a shrinking middle class.
On Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed a counterweight to this relatively recent phenomenon in American business. Her bill, the, revolves around a simple idea: The government would grant corporations the right to exist through a public charter, and could use that power to put obligations on corporations to benefit the broader public rather than a small handful of shareholders.
A federal corporate charter, required for all companies with over $1 billion in annual revenue, would be granted through a new Office of United States Corporations in the Commerce Department. The charter could be revoked if corporations didn’t follow its rules, including engaging in “repeated and egregious illegal conduct.” Shareholders could also sue companies for charter violations. “For the past 30 years we have put the American stamp of approval on giant corporations, even as they have ignored the interests of all but a tiny slice of Americans,” Warren wrote in aannouncing the bill. “We should insist on a new deal.”
I’vethat the corporate charter can be a powerful tool against recidivist corporate lawbreakers who continually harm the public. But charters are primarily conferred at the state level, and states haven’t really enforced them, worried about losing corporate tax revenue. A federal charter short-circuits that fear, and establishes a set of common, enforceable standards of corporate conduct.
Under the federal charter, companies would be required to consider the interests of workers, customers, communities, and society before making major decisions. Employees would elect at least 40 percent of all company directors, giving them representation on corporate boards. That would involve worker representatives in decisions like whether to engage in political spending, which would require sign-off from 75 percent of all directors and shareholders. Finally, executives who receive shares of stock as compensation would have to hold them for at least five years.
Warren is using a variety of strategies to attack, the way capitalism has been practiced in America since the 1980s. Free market evangelist Milton Friedman , eliminating what had been a much broader conception of corporate social responsibility. According to Friedman, companies have a duty to act in the sole interests of their shareholders. And shareholders have the overriding goal of increasing the value of their investment.
As the late Cornell professor Lynn Stout explained in her book, Friedman’s concept rested on the legal error that only shareholders are stakeholders in a company. But it gradually became the standard in business, and the source of all kinds of perversions of capitalism.
Keeping down worker wages, busting unions, and outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries are all seen as beneficial because a higher percentage of profits goes to the firm. Stock buybacks and other financial engineering havethrough the capital markets; as Warren notes, “between 2007 and 2016, large American companies dedicated of their earnings to shareholders.” Because over 80 percent of all stock is of the population, inequality has soared. Passive income, which confers a lower tax rate, requires only having money to make money. Most CEO compensation , creating powerful incentives to goose the stock price. Corporations spend heavily to influence government to change laws and soften regulations that reduce potential profits, out of an obligation to shareholders.
In short, if corporations are people, shareholder value theory requires them to operate like psychopaths, pursuing only cash and bulldozing any obstacle in their path. A sense of ethics or responsibility to other citizens is disallowed in this framework.
Warren’s agenda would break the tyranny of shareholder value. Giving companies a duty to other stakeholders would force them to consider more than maximizing stock returns. Worker representatives on corporate boards would make the decision-making process far more democratic. Throwing sand in the gears of financial engineering—in addition to the five-year hold on executive stock sales, there would be a three-year lag after any buyback—would discourage both the leaking out of corporate profits to investors and the payment of executive compensation in stock.
There’s proven evidence that this model of corporate governance can work. “Co-determination,” the term for worker representation on corporate boards, has created a form of capitalism in Germany where workers areand decisions are made with an eye .
But you don’t have to look overseas. America in the 1950s and 1960s followed a model where executives and directors had a broader view of corporate responsibility. Because of structural racism and sexism, not everyone shared in its benefits. But combining a more egalitarian society with a more egalitarian corporate governance would reduce the dissonance between a more socially equal society and a more economically divided one.
“Corporate responsibility” used to be common practice, and now it’s more of a. The Warren agenda would make it a legal standard, in a way that she believes would redistribute trillions of dollars from corporate coffers to business investment and, ultimately, the employees that created the riches. She has taken to heart Roosevelt’s words about corporations—that “the State not only has the right to control them, but is in duty bound to control them wherever the need for such control is shown.” The lived experience of shareholder capitalism shows the need is greater than ever.
There’s something about a first national election of the Trump presidency that focuses the mind. For now, at least, anxious rhetoric about contemporary America’s proximity to Weimar Germany and doom-laden idioms of resistance have cleared space on the left for a provisional hope about what the Democratic Party and its candidates can yet do with the good, old-fashioned, still-cranking gears of electoral politics.
It’s a question not only with many possible answers but with very different kinds of answer, depending on the horizon we’re looking at. How the Democrats can take back Congress is an issue that ranges from tactics to strategy. What they might succeed at doing if they take back Congress goes from strategy to vision. But then, what the Democratic Party might actually become, so it could sustainably lead the United States out of the toxic bog that’s accreted around a morally collapsed Republican Party and toward something new—that’s a question that would seem to extend from vision to ... something beyond vision.
Maybe that something is what we’re accustomed in the modern world to calling ideology—understanding ideologies as clear constellations of social, political, and economic ideas we can look to, to order and govern how we think about order and governance. It’s intuitive that the idea of ideology, in this sense, would be in ascendance on the left these days. After decades of Democratic politics oriented predominantly around the calculated triangulations of the Clintons or the morally impassioned centrism of Obama, both approaches were not only crushed by populist reaction among Republican voters but seriously challenged by someone calling himself a socialist among Democrats. The American political system is meanwhile in a proto-authoritarian crisis; that crisis has been precipitating itself over decades, meaning structural deterioration and a need for systematic change; and how, after all, can you really intend systematic change without systematic thinking to predicate it on?
The problem is, systematic change in a democracy means in turn a need for democratic legitimacy, which ideologies, however incisive or coherent, are not on their own good at. And this means further in turn a need for institutions with the ability to foster democratic legitimacy—above all, the ability to clarify and make vivid the stakes of issues and arguments; to establish conditions where people can allow themselves to be persuaded about new priorities and agendas; and ultimately to forge new kinds of common sense. It means the sort of thing strong pro-democratic magazines have at their best always been good at—modeling powerful citizenship to help the society around them meet the challenge of a new time.
York, NY—(August 16, 2018)—The New Republic today published its September issue, which
features a cover package that explores who the Democrats need to be in the
Trump era and poses the question, “Can the Democrats fix Washington?”.
Nearly 50 years ago, a group of young, liberal lawmakers swept into Congress on a mission to overturn the status quo. In a year when the stakes of the congressional election are so high for Democrats, Michael Tomasky asserts that the party must learn from that Congressional class of 1974, the last pivotal midterm to favor Democrats, that resulted in a raft of liberal legislation. “If ever America needed a big, earthshaking election to change the course of the country, it’s now,” declares Tomasky.
Additional information about the September 2018 issue is included below.
“Overdose and Punishment,” Jack
Shuler examines the prosecution of Tommy Kosto, charged with killing his
friend and fellow drug user Chad Baker, who overdosed on a lethal combination
of cocaine and heroin. Shuler uses this example to demonstrate that the
Reagan-era war on drugs tactics are only worsening today’s opioid crisis,
stating “there’s no evidence that stiffer penalties have reduced drug
Isaac Stone Fish analyzes the epidemic of self-censorship at U.S. universities on the subject of China in order to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars Chinese individuals and the Chinese Communist Party contribute to universities. Fish explains in “The Other Political Correctness,” that self-censorship within American institutions is an issue as it “restricts the ability of U.S. policy makers, businesspeople, human rights advocates, and the general public to make smart decisions about how to interact with China.”
[U.S. & THE WORLD]
Cox Richardson evaluates
how Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2018 election encouraged Democrats to develop
a new narrative about who they are and what they stand for as a political party
in “The Language of Patriotism”.
“After decades of being excoriated as un-American, Democrats are the ones sticking up for the FBI, the CIA, the
Constitution, and the rule of the law,” claims Richardson, to defend the
country against a hostile president.
“What Was Keith Ellison Thinking?” by David Dayen answers the question of why the influential congressman is leaving Washington to run for Minnesota attorney general. Dayen argues, “in Donald Trump’s Washington, where partisan blood wars on Capitol Hill have ground the federal legislative machinery to a halt, his decision is less career suicide and more common sense.”
In “The Soccer Mom Has Returned,” Lily Geismer examines how candidates must appeal to today’s suburban soccer mom in order to win nominations by forgoing strategies and definitions of the past. Geismer says this demographic’s influence has gone even further because, “In 2018, Democratic strategists aren’t just trying to reach soccer moms. They’ve recruited candidates who are soccer moms.”
The issue of Democrats’ lack of investment in Hispanic voter outreach is explored in “Taking Latino Voters for Granted.” Author Adrian Carrasquillo recognizes that Democrats have not engaged Latinos, neither organizationally nor financially, which is in part due to the lack of diversity amongst those in power who decide how campaign money is spent. Carrasquillo states, “Without funds devoted to Latinos specifically, it’s going to be difficult to turn them out, let alone register them to vote.”
John B. Judis asserts that “abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency” is a losing message for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond. In his piece “Don’t Abolish ICE,” Judis explains that sharp moves to the far left could “prove disastrous in a general election. The fact that growing numbers of Democratic politicians seem to support them suggests that they have not figured out how to resurrect themselves in as a party.”
Laura Putnam and Theda Skocpol counter with “Accentuate the Activists,” in which they declare activists are rebuilding the Democratic Party, rather than tearing it apart. “Women (and some men), activated by the current moment and aided by civic groups of their own making, are heading out into neighborhoods, church halls, and country party committees—working to oust unresponsive incumbents and rebuild participatory democracy,” write Putnam and Skocpol.
[BOOKS & THE ARTS]
for Nothing,” by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian explores
whether automation and UBI will eliminate work by examining two new books, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
and Give People Money: How a Universal
Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by
Annie Lowrey. Abrahamian writes, “While
many of us might hate our individual jobs, most of us love the idea of a job.
Our world is constructed around the idea that a job is not just a paycheck:
It’s a status symbol and a form of social inclusion...Now that a jobless (or
less job-full) future may be within reach, the question is how to reimagine our
relationship with work.”
“Utopian Visions” from Jillian Steinhauer takes a look at the egotism and idealism of art from Burning Man and delves into whether it can make sense outside the desert. She explains, “Indeed, the artworks of Burning Man don’t always make sense outside of the desert because, as much as they exist (or fail) on their own merits, they’re just as importantly only one facet of the demonstration of human creativity that is Burning Man. Art helps Burners tell a story about the kind of enlightened people they are and the kind of glorious place they’ve created. In many cases, that is the only story it can tell.”
Daphne Merkin reviews The Wife, a film by Björn Runge that showcases how a Nobel Prize win jolts an unequal marriage in “Second Place”. Merkin writes, “[the film] attempts to penetrate that mystery and the enigma of creative genius by suggesting that, in order for good writing to take place, someone else—in this case, a woman—must not write, or must at least sacrifice her own talent to aid and abet male artistry.”
In “Spare No Trend,” Rachel Syme explores how TV Land’s Younger skewers the caprices—and prejudices—of the publishing industry. Syme explains that the show “has become a clever conduit through which to take on a wider range of issues. Publishing, at its heart, is about trying to capture and disseminate the zeitgeist; many of the conversations that the characters end up having on Younger are about how best to shepherd these new stories into the world and about the bumps they hit along the way.”
Timothy Shenk examines the rise of predictions of democracy’s end in “Crisisology”. Using How Democracy Ends by David Runciman and How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah Goldberg, Shenk notes that “by 2021, Trump could be working in real estate full-time again, the blandest of Democrats could be in control of government, and pundits could be heralding the revenge of the norms. But it’s also possible that a more profound shift is underway. As the political theorist Corey Robin has observed, when an old order is collapsing... it is easy to confuse the waning of a particular political system with a more fundamental breakdown of democracy.”
Poems by Jesus I. Valles, Aline Mello and Tiana Nobile are featured this month. For Res Publica, Editor-in-Chief Win McCormack explores how to argue with a Koch brother in “False Concepts of Liberty”.
The entire September 2018 issue of The New Republic is available on newsstands and via digital subscription now.
For additional information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an interview after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in June over incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley, Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called the 28-year-old “the future of our party.”
Soon, leading Democratic presidential aspirants Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren had endorsed her signature demand: to “abolish ICE,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Even Bernie Sanders, after initial demurrals, called for eliminating “the cruel, dysfunctional immigration system” and Kamala Harris for “starting from scratch” when it came to ICE. Only Cory Booker balked, calling for hearings on whether immigration enforcement “might be achieved better in other ways.” These Democrats had already signed on to other parts of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform: All five had demanded Medicare for All; Sanders, Booker, and Gillibrand had also endorsed a federal jobs guarantee.
These sharp moves to the left are supposed to be good for the country—and for the Democrats. Yet they would likely prove disastrous in a general election. The fact that growing numbers of Democratic politicians seem to support them suggests that they have not figured out how to resurrect themselves as a party. To do that, they need to reclaim many of the voters in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic who backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008 but sided with Trump in 2016. These kinds of programs will, if anything, drive those voters away.
The political problem for Democrats can be expressed in geometric figures. The older Democratic majority, which dominated American politics from 1930 to 1968, was rooted in the working and middle classes. It was shaped like a pyramid, with Democratic support declining toward the top as income and education rose. Beginning in the 1970s, however, as the white working and middle classes, which had been the bulwark of the old party, began to vacate it, it increasingly resembled an hourglass that bulged with working-class minorities at the bottom and upper-middle-class professionals near the top.
This hourglass coalition, which Ruy Teixeira and I described in our 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, could win elections as long as Democrats carried about 40 percent (lower in the South but higher elsewhere) of the white working class. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton got only 29 percent of these voters. In the crucial swing state of Ohio, she got 33 percent.
Democrats often point out that Clinton won almost three million more votes than Trump. But in presidential elections, what matters is who wins states. Moreover, at the House level, it was Republicans who actually won the popular vote, suggesting that a less toxic candidate than Trump could have done much better.
Some Democratic leaders now rest their hopes on Hispanics and Asians, who they believe will, along with African Americans, create a majority-minority electorate like that of California, which overwhelmingly favors Democrats. Yet these minorities—as they assimilate and intermarry, effectively becoming “white” themselves, a trend documented by demographer Richard Alba—may increasingly follow the pattern of Italians, Irish, and other European immigrants and vote in a similar manner to other “whites” of comparable income and education. In this, Texas (where even Trump won more than a third of the Hispanic vote), not California, may be prophetic.
Another alternative exists for Democrats worried about their future: to recapture parts of the white working and middle classes that they have lost over time to the Republicans. This group, which makes up the largest plurality of voters, can still sway elections toward Democrats, as they did in 2006, when the party reclaimed both the House and the Senate with their help, and later, in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama won the Rust Belt. Sanders was seeking to do the same in 2016, but it’s not clear that if he had been nominated, he would have defeated Trump. The problem, as the Democrats’ embrace of the bulk of Ocasio-Cortez’s program shows, is that they harbor assumptions that put them at odds with much of middle America.
Take the debate over ICE. Most Americans believe the immigration enforcement system in this country needs reforming, as polls favoring the extension of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the recent outrage over the president brutally separating the children of illegal migrants from their parents demonstrate. But the slogan “abolish ICE” suggested that Democrats wanted to abolish not only the agency but also the deportation of any illegal immigrants—something that runs afoul of public support. A Harris-Harvard poll conducted in late June found the public against disbanding ICE by 69 to 31 percent. Democrats were opposed by 59 to 41 percent. When framed this boldly and not simply as reform, even Hispanics were split 50 to 50. The House Hispanic Caucus opposes abolition. If Democrats were hoping the slogan would be enthusiastically received by Latinos, they were wrong.
A better case can be made for expanding Medicare to cover those under age 65. Managing such a program would be extraordinarily complicated, but the federal government and states are already running a combination of Medicare and Medicaid that covers over a third of the population; the slogan Medicare for All is also increasingly popular among many Democrats—it helped Sanders in the 2016 primaries. But Medicare for All might not work as well in pale blue states like Colorado, where its supporters put a referendum on the ballot in 2016 that would have created a state single-payer system. Wary of higher taxes, Coloradoans defeated it 79 to 21 percent. It could prove even less popular in Midwestern states where white working-class voters are an even larger portion of the electorate—and have regularly opposed higher taxes and programs that require them (in their eyes) to subsidize the idle or incompetent poor. It’s not necessarily a commendable perception—it can be fed by racism as well as by the Protestant ethic—but any program that aspires to expand the welfare state has to take it into account.
Perhaps the most radical proposal backed by Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, Booker, and Gillibrand is the federal jobs guarantee. Crafted this year by economists William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton, and Mark Paul, it would “provide a job, at non-poverty wages, for all citizens above the age of 18 that sought one.” The authors estimate the cost at $543 billion a year, but that’s with 4.1 percent unemployment. During a recession, the cost could rise to $2 trillion, or roughly half the current federal budget, and lead to huge tax increases. The program also raises the feared specter of big government. The federal government is currently far from capable of creating 12 or 22 million jobs, as Josh Bivens from the Economic Policy Institute notes. The Labor Department, where the authors suggest placing the program, would have to become the size of the Pentagon during wartime. While polls have registered initial support for a guarantee of full employment, its support would plummet during a general election as voters were made to realize what it would cost in taxes and how it would transform the federal government into an unwieldy and potentially inefficient behemoth.
None of these observations may matter in the 2018 congressional elections. Democrats (and Republicans) can be expected to run campaigns that speak to their different states and districts. Ocasio-Cortez can advocate the abolition of ICE in her district, which favored Clinton by 77 to 21 percent in 2016, without fearing retribution from her voters. In Arizona, Democrats will take a different tack. (Congressman Ruben Gallego and Senate Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema already are.) The races in November 2018 will be fought over the person of Donald J. Trump.
But if Democrats are looking beyond 2018, and if they want to win back the erstwhile Democrats who backed Trump in 2016, they need an outlook that respects borders, takes heed of American individualism, and respects skepticism about taxes and big government. That doesn’t mean embracing conservatism. Americans can be guaranteed national health care with a mix of public and private insurance; the government can boost the labor market through needed large-scale infrastructure programs; and borders can be policed, and illegal immigration discouraged, without separating children from their families or branding Mexican immigrants as criminals. The point is not to move to the right but to move to the left while recognizing basic values that many Americans hold about government and their lives.
Does that mean that Americans will never accept a big government program like Medicare for All? No, but Americans have only acquiesced to dramatic increases in the scope and power of government in extreme situations—in economic crises like that in the 1930s, which affected the middle as well as the bottom of society; in the face of militant insurgencies that threatened social disruption (as occurred in the 1960s); or in time of war. None of these conditions prevails right now. Those who advocate more advanced objectives can agitate and educate, but as far as countering a reactionary Republican Party nationally, they must bide their time.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Senator Cory Booker has endorsed abolishing ICE. We regret the error.