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The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity

Posted: 05 Jul 2019 03:00 AM PDT

Last week, Ralph Reed, the Faith and Freedom Coalition's founder and chairman, told the group, "There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!"

Reed is partially right; for many evangelical Christians, there is no political figure whom they have loved more than Donald Trump.

I recently exchanged emails with a pro-Trump figure who attended the president's reelection rally in Orlando on June 18. (He spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, so as to avoid personal or professional repercussions.) He had interviewed scores of people, many of whom are evangelical Christians. "I have never witnessed the kind of excitement and enthusiasm for a political figure in my life," he told me. "I honestly couldn't believe the unwavering support they have. And to a person, it was all about 'the fight.' There is a very strong sense (I believe justified, you disagree) that he has been wronged. Wronged by Mueller, wronged by the media, wronged by the anti-Trump forces. A passionate belief that he never gets credit for anything."

The rallygoers, he said, told him that Trump's era "is spiritually driven." When I asked whether he meant by this that Trump's supporters believe God's hand is on Trump, this moment and the election—that Donald Trump is God's man, in effect—he told me, "Yes—a number of people said they believe there is no other way to explain his victories. Starting with the election and continuing with the conclusion of the Mueller report. Many said God has chosen him and is protecting him."  

The data seems to bear this out. Approval for President Trump among white evangelical Protestants is 25 points higher than the national average. And according to a PewResearch Center survey, "White evangelical Protestants who regularly attend church (that is, once a week or more) approve of Trump at rates matching or exceeding those of white evangelicals who attend church less often." Indeed, during the period from July 2018 to January 2019, 70 percent of white evangelicals who attend church at least once a week approved of Trump, versus 65 percent of those who attend religious services less often.

The enthusiastic, uncritical embrace for President Trump by white evangelicals is among the most mind-blowing development of the Trump era. How can a group that for decades—and especially during the Bill Clinton presidency—insisted that character counts and that personal integrity is an essential component of presidential leadership not only turn a blind eye toward the ethical and moral transgressions of Donald Trump, but constantly defend him? Why are those who have been on the vanguard of "family values" so eager to give a man with a sordid personal and sexual history a "mulligan"?

Part of the answer is their belief that they are engaged in an existential struggle against a wicked enemy—not Russia, not North Korea, not Iran, but rather American liberals and the left. If you listen to Trump supporters who are evangelical (and non-evangelicals, like the radio talk-show host Mark Levin), you will hear adjectives applied to those on the left that could easily be used to describe a Stalinist regime. (Ask yourself how many evangelicals have publicly criticized Donald Trump for his lavish praise of Kim Jung Un, the leader of perhaps the most savage regime in the world and the worst persecutor of Christians in the world.)

Many white evangelical Christians, then, are deeply fearful of what a Trump loss would mean for America, American culture, and American Christianity. If a Democrat is elected president, they believe, it might all come crashing down around us. During the 2016 election, for example, the influential evangelical author and radio talk show host Eric Metaxas said, "In all of our years we faced all kinds of struggles. The only time we faced an existential struggle like this was in the Civil War and in the revolution when the nation began… We are on the verge of losing it as we could have lost it in the Civil War."A friend of mine described this outlook to me this way: "It's the Flight 93 election. FOREVER."

Many evangelical Christians are also filled with grievances and resentments because they feel they have been mocked, scorned, and dishonored by the elite culture over years. (Some of those feelings are understandable and warranted.) For them, Trump is a man who will not only push their agenda on issues like the courts and abortion; he will be ruthless against those they view as threats to all they know and love. For a growing number of evangelicals, Trump's dehumanizing tactics and cruelty aren't a bug; they are a feature. Trump "owns the libs," and they love it. He'll bring a Glock to a cultural knife fight, and they relish it.

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, one of the largest Christian universities in the world, put it this way: "Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing 'nice guys.' They might make great Christian leaders but the United States needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!"

There's a very high cost to our politics for celebrating the Trump style, but what is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness. Nonchalantly jettisoning the ethic of Jesus in favor of a political leader who embraces the ethic of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche—might makes right, the strong should rule over the weak, justice has no intrinsic worth, moral values are socially constructed and subjective—is troubling enough.

But there is also the undeniable hypocrisy of people who once made moral character, and especially sexual fidelity, central to their political calculus now embracing a man of boundless corruptions. Don't forget: Trump was essentially named as an unindicted co-conspirator ("Individual 1") in a scheme to make hush-money payments to a porn star, who alleged she'd had an affair with him while Trump was married to his third wife, who had just given birth to their son.

While on the Pacific Coast last week I had lunch with Karel Coppock, who I have known for many years and who has played an important role in my Christian pilgrimage. In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, Coppock—who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism—lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion he told me, "We're losing an entire generation. They're just gone. It's one of the worst thing to happen to the church."

Coppock mentioned to me the powerful example of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who was willing to rebuke the Roman Emperor Theodosius for the latter's role in massacring civilians as punishment for the murder of one of his generals. Ambrose refused to allow the church to become a political prop, despite concerns that doing so may endanger him. Ambrose spoke truth to power. (Theodosius ended up seeking penance and Ambrose went on to teach, convert and baptize St. Augustine.) Proximity to power is fine for Christians, Karel told me, but only so long as it does not corrupt their moral sense, only so long as they don't allow their faith to become politically weaponized. Yet that is precisely what's happening today.

Evangelical Christians need another model for cultural and political engagement, and one of the best I am aware of has been articulated by the artist Makoto Fujimura, who speaks about "culture care" instead of "culture war."

According to Fujimura, "Culture care is an act of generosity to our neighbors and culture. Culture care is to see our world not as a battle zone in which we're all vying for limited resources, but to see the world of abundant possibilities and promise." What Fujimura is talking about is a fundamentally different set of sensibilities and dispositions from what we see embodied in many white evangelical leaders who frequently speak out on culture and politics. The sensibilities and dispositions Fujimura is describing are characterized by a commitment to grace, beauty, and creativity, not antipathy, disdain, and pulsating anger. It's the difference between an open hand and a mailed fist.

Building on this theme, Mark Labberton, a colleague of Fujimura's and president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest multi-denominational seminary in the world, has spoken about a distinct way for Christians to conceive of their calling, from people who see themselves as living in a Promised Land and "demanding it back" to living a "faithful, exilic life."

Labberton speaks about what it means to live as people in exile, trying to find the capacity to love in unexpected ways; to see the enemy, the foreigner, the stranger, and the alien and to go toward rather than away from them. He asks what a life of faithfulness looks like while living in a world of fear.

He adds, "The church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis—not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action."

There are countless examples of how such tangible action can be manifest. But as a starting point, evangelical Christians should acknowledge the profound damage that's being done to their movement by its braided political relationship—its love affair, to bring us back to the words of Ralph Reed—with a president who is an ethical and moral wreck. Until that is undone—until followers of Jesus are once again willing to speak truth to power rather than act like court pastors—the crisis in American Christianity will only deepen, its public testimony only dim, its effort to be a healing agent in a broken world only weaken.

At this point, I can't help but wonder if that really matters to many of Donald Trump's besotted evangelical supporters.

Europe Has Turned Its Back on Its ISIS Suspects

Posted: 05 Jul 2019 03:00 AM PDT

Samir Bougana, a 24-year-old Italian, was one of thousands of western European recruits who traveled to fight alongside the Islamic State after 2014. But he differs from all of them in one key respect: His own government is taking him home to stand trial.

Bougana was captured and held for almost a year by Kurdish forces in Syria before Italy took custody of him, in a decision the State Department praised and urged other western European countries to emulate. But so far, none of them has taken one of its citizens back to face a terrorism trial for joining ISIS.

Some 2,000 suspected fighters from dozens of countries, including hundreds from Europe, languish in Kurdish detention in northeastern Syria, and the Trump administration has been pushing its democratic allies to bring them home to face justice. Although Donald Trump himself vowed during his campaign to use the prison at Guantánamo Bay—which remains open but hasn't taken in any new prisoners since 2008—and "load it up with some bad dudes," his administration's actual policy has been far more humane and measured.

[Read: America still doesn't know what to do with terrorism suspects]

Prisoner repatriation is a rare issue wherein the administration's efforts largely align with the recommendations of legal scholars and human-rights groups. Many have argued that, in democracies at least, there is no more legitimate, efficient, and secure way to handle terrorism suspects than to use the domestic criminal-justice system. They have condemned such practices as stripping citizenship, which the U.K. did in the case of the 19-year-old ISIS bride Shamima Begum; or allowing their nationals to stand trial in Iraq, which has a documented history of prisoner abuse and unfair trials, as France has done with several of its citizens.

The irony is that some western European countries, whose representatives were appalled by America's indefinite detention of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay after September 11, are now by default accepting a sprawling Guantánamo in the desert.

"Europeans seem to be fine with letting their own citizens sit there," a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue, told me. This official said that the U.S. was working to identify its own citizens in the custody of America's local Kurdish allies—the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF—and has repatriated four so far for trial. (One dual Saudi American citizen the U.S. had suspected of joining ISIS, but never brought to trial, was freed in Bahrain last year; in another case, the State Department controversially argued that an accused ISIS propagandist, Hoda Muthana, was not actually a citizen despite being born in Alabama.) But thousands of other foreign fighters—not even counting Iraqis and Syrians—are in makeshift prisons northeastern Syria.

Among democratic countries, which arguably have the best means to bring them to justice and hold them securely, there is very little interest in bringing them home to face prosecution—or even in bringing home the wives and children of ISIS fighters, who are being held separately in squalid detention centers.

A further irony is that authoritarian Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan, have been leading the way on repatriating their citizens from Iraq and Syria—especially women and children—and casting their efforts in humanitarian terms, Letta Tayler, a senior researcher in terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch, told me. "Western Europe is hiding its head in the sand when it should be taking care of its citizens," said Tayler, who recently visited separate camps in northeastern Syria, where the families of suspected ISIS members are being held in conditions she described as squalid and horrifying. "If Kazakhstan can repatriate by the hundreds, surely western Europe, with far greater resources and far fewer suspects and family members … can do the same." (Tayler has written that France, for example, has brought back 17 children—but has left at least 400 people, including children, behind.)

[Read: He was branded the 'American Taliban.' Now he's getting out of jail].

In a rare moment of praise for a post-Soviet dictatorship, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, said the country was showing "much needed leadership on the critical global issue."

There are of course concerns that, public messaging aside, authorities in dictatorships like Kazakhstan may themselves abuse prisoners. Ní Aoláin highlighted the country's use of domestic-counterterrorism laws against religious minorities and political dissenters. Tayler says Human Rights Watch has been pushing for transparency about what happens to prisoners in custody. But the broader significance of policies like Kazakhstan's, she says, is that they expose the weakness of the western European argument that it's too difficult or dangerous to take such suspects back.

So far, Washington's pleas are being mostly ignored. For instance, in May, an Iraqi court tried seven French suspects, and handed them the death penalty after four days of hearings. Though France opposes the death penalty and had told the Iraqis so, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said recently: "Those French nationals tried in Iraq for belonging to [ISIS] left their country to join the ranks of a terrorist organization which, among other things, has killed and tortured Iraqis. It's logical that they should be tried where they committed their crimes and where justice claims jurisdiction."

A U.K. official, who also requested anonymity to discuss the issue, wrote in an email: "We're continuing to explore justice mechanisms in the region and of course it's up to every country to decide what the best course of action is regarding foreign fighters in line with their national security priorities."

From the administration's perspective, the best course of action is already clear: Unless prisoners would be tortured in their home countries, they should be sent home to face trial. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights has embraced a similar position, declaring that states have responsibilities toward their own nationals—and that foreign family members in particular should be repatriated unless they are to be prosecuted under international standards.

[Read: An American accused of joining ISIS is free, and a bigger story is beginning]

Trump himself may not have humanitarian concerns in mind when he presses Europe. He has not given the issue anywhere near the public attention that, say, Barack Obama did to closing Guantánamo. That was a much less complicated project involving far fewer people from far fewer countries, plus it enjoyed far more high-level attention from the U.S. Yet that effort remains unfinished a decade after Obama vowed to close the prison—which still holds some 40 people. Trump did in February call on Europeans to take their citizens back for trial, warning darkly on Twitter that the U.S. "does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go." Rather, he pointed to how much the United States had done and spent to fight ISIS, and made clear his preference to leave once the fight was over. This spring, he again accused the Europeans on Twitter of not doing enough to take back their citizens following the reclamation of ISIS territory.

In the meantime, the world's attention is flagging. Summer holidays are approaching in Europe; in northeastern Syria, Tayler points out, the season also means triple-digit temperatures where prisoners—and, at separate camps, their family members—languish in poor conditions. The Islamic State was America's top national-security priority for years; now that the group has lost its territory, it's hard to focus on what's happening in its former lands. Besides, it's always easier to draw attention to a threat than to what looks like a humanitarian problem.

There's also a limit to how much the Trump administration itself is willing to focus on the issue, given its other priorities. "If this was truly a Trump administration priority, then the signals that were coming out didn't demonstrate that to our partners," Elizabeth Dent, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute who previously served as a special assistant to the special presidential envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, told me. And it's difficult to predict the outcome, given the seemingly ever-shifting policy on the U.S. presence in Syria. If Bashar al-Assad's forces attempt to retake the territory held by America's Kurdish partners, for example, "this could go very badly," Dent said—not least because it would stretch the Syrian regime even more thinly to regain control of more than a third of the country and take custody of thousands of detained fighters and their families.

And it may not stay a humanitarian problem. The Islamic State's predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, built itself in part through breaking fighters out of prison; there are security problems in SDF prisons, and reports of attempted prison breaks. "My concern at this point is if there is a prison break, we will be kicking ourselves. The Europeans will be kicking themselves," said the senior State Department official. "If there's a prison break, these guys end up undetected on [Europe's] borders."

Trump’s Foreign Policy Enters Its Third Phase

Posted: 05 Jul 2019 03:00 AM PDT

Vyacheslav Molotov served in senior positions in the Soviet Union for over a quarter century, including ten years as Stalin's foreign minister. He was dismissed in 1949 when he fell out of favor with Stalin, but he found his way back in to the Foreign Ministry after the dictator's death in 1953. Over the next four years, he fought with the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. According to Molotov's biographer, Geoffrey Roberts, Khrushchev "accused Molotov of being a dogmatist whose actions as foreign minister had united the USSR's imperialist enemies." The Soviet plenum passed a resolution that charged Molotov with opposing measures "to reduce international tension and strengthen world peace." Molotov was dismissed from his post and named ambassador to Outer Mongolia (what is now independent Mongolia). This role wasn't unimportant, and his fate was sweeter than those of Khrushchev's other party rivals—Georgy Malenkov was made to manage a power station in Kazakhstan and Lazar Kaganovich a potash factory in the Urals. Even so, Molotov was far, far from the action. "Banished to Outer Mongolia" quickly entered the English lexicon.

On June 30, another mustachioed foreign-policy chief found himself in Outer Mongolia. John Bolton was sent to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, while President Trump stepped into North Korea to meet Kim Jong Un. Trump was accompanied by loyalists—Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, Jared and Ivanka—and a new adviser, Fox News's Tucker Carlson, who is credited with talking the president out of striking Iran as his Cabinet had recommended. Trump invited Kim to the White House, and reports swirled than the United States would settle for a nuclear freeze by North Korea instead of denuclearization. In response, Bolton tweeted, "Neither the NSC staff or I have discussed or heard of any desire to 'settle for a nuclear freeze by North Korea.' This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences." The words "NSC staff or I" were doing a lot of work, implying that others in the administration were behind the move. We now know that Stephen Biegun, the State Department's special envoy for North Korea, briefed reporters on Pompeo's plane back from Korea that the administration was considering a "complete freeze" to unlock the talks.

President Trump's foreign policy has been full of twists and turns, but it has also followed a clear narrative arc. The 10-day period from June 20—when Trump reversed himself on Iran strikes—to the DMZ visit was among the most significant of his presidency, as he was forced to come to terms with the consequences and contradictions of his own decisions. Over the course of three decades, Trump has carefully nurtured two images of himself—as a deal maker, and as a militarist. Bolton did all he could to encourage the latter. But even from faraway Ulaanbaatar this past weekend, it was clear that, when made to choose, Trump would opt for the former.

To understand where we are and where we are going, we must first understand where we have been. Trump became president with a set of deeply rooted visceral instincts about the world—hostility to alliances, skepticism of free trade, and support for authoritarian strongmen—but little idea about how to convert these beliefs into policy. He had few advisers qualified for high office who believed what he believed. He was insecure. And so he turned to a number of highly experienced businessmen and former military officers to fill key national security and foreign policy positions—John Kelly, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, and Rex Tillerson. These men saw their role as constraining the president, not empowering him. The measured their success by what they prevented from happening, rather than by what they made happen. In the Trump epoch, this was the age of constraint.

The president did not always listen to the "axis of adults." In fact, he took pleasure in defying them on occasion, but he usually returned to the fold under pressure. In delivering a speech at the new NATO headquarters in May 2017, Trump raised doubts about his commitment to the alliance when he took out a sentence endorsing Article 5, the mutual defense clause of the NATO charter. After the ensuing uproar, he was persuaded to state his support for Article 5 at a press conference with the Romanian president and in a subsequent speech in Poland. Under the leadership of the axis of adults, the administration produced strategic documents reflecting the views of the establishment.

The president grew weary of the adult supervision and he gradually realized he was the president. He could order his Cabinet members to do what he wished, even if they all objected. We can identify precisely when the age of constraint reached its peak and when it ended. The peak came on July 17, 2017, when the president sat in an interagency meeting to discuss the Iran nuclear deal—specifically the question of whether to recertify Iran's compliance, an assessment that the United States was required to make every six months. Trump's team presented him with three options, none of which involved leaving the deal. Trump was furious—he approved a recertification but promised that it would be the last one. By the next deadline, he wanted the option to leave. Bolton immediately began auditioning for the job as Trump's top security adviser, writing an article in National Review with a plan to leave the Iran deal.

For the next few months, it was clear that Trump was intent on a change. He forced out the axis of adults, replacing Tillerson, Cohn, and McMaster with individuals who placed loyalty to the president over their own independent judgment. This ushered in the second phase of his presidency—the age of action. Trump now acted more freely, pursuing his instincts, even when they conflicted with the advice of his officials. He announced talks with Kim Jong Un without consulting his Cabinet. He moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. He imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum. He had a summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He started a trade war with China. His national security adviser, Bolton, effectively abolished the interagency process through which the Pentagon, State Department, CIA and other entities have formal seats at the table where the decisions are made. The removal of constraints was complete when Mattis resigned in December 2018 following Trump's promise to withdraw troops from Syria.

For Trump, the age of action was exhilarating. It fulfilled his expectations of what it meant to be president. But it couldn't last forever. His actions were always focused on the short term. They were frequently riven with contradictions. There never was an end goal or a strategy for how to get there. The United States is a very powerful country. It can make mistakes for some time without incurring the costs that normal powers would experience if they pursued the same path. But it cannot do so indefinitely.

The age of reckoning finally arrived on June 21, when Trump ordered air strikes on Iran and then changed his mind. At this moment, the contradictions in his Iran policy were laid bare. Trump wanted to shred the Iran nuclear deal and impose maximum pressure on the Iranian regime. He also wanted to avoid embroiling America in a new conflict in the Middle East. He could not have both. But for over a year, he pretended as if these two goals were not in conflict. Perhaps he believed the Iranians would surrender without a fight. Or that they would come to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. Or perhaps he did not think about the endgame at all until he had to.  

For all his own flaws, Trump was not well served by his national security team. The axis of adults manipulated Trump by delaying, blocking, or blunting his requests. Bolton manipulated him by advocating for the most extreme options—such as imposing secondary sanctions on European countries to truly destroy the Iran nuclear deal or pulling out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—when more modest ones would have sufficed. Bolton's priority has always been to advance his unilateralist theory of international law and he seems unable to think strategically about America's interests.

It has been obvious for months that Trump did not want war with Iran, but Bolton kept the president from hearing from officials who would offer a contrary view to the hawks. Never one for protocol, Trump decided to go outside normal channels and started talking to Carlson, who now appears to be a confidant. It says a lot about Bolton's own insecurity that he would prefer to put his boss in the position of relying on a talk show host rather than allow an interagency meeting where a diversity of views might be raised.

In the reckoning, there is some clarity. It is now clear that Trump wants talks with Iran, just like with North Korea. Calling off the strikes was the right judgment call, but things should never have gotten to that point. Foreign governments now know what makes Trump tick. Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and others are no doubt taking copious notes. Trump's team will be tempted to correct course—as they did by imposing tough new sanctions the days after the Iran strike decision, but the damage is done.

The contradictions are catching up with Trump elsewhere. The DMZ summit confirmed that, if forced to choose between denuclearization and a good relationship with Kim Jong Un, he will choose Kim. In Venezuela, he was told that forcing Nicolas Maduro out of power would be an easy win. It was not. Faced with the choice between escalation and intervention on the one hand and disengagement on the other, he admonished his hawkish aides and chose the latter course. He was right not to intervene, but once again a crisis had reached a point it shouldn't have.

On China, Trump embraced foreign policy hawks to create leverage that would compel Beijing to reach a trade deal. However, it looks like he has to choose between an agreement and efforts to counterbalance Chinese power. In Osaka, he chose to keep the deal alive and reversed his decision to ban American companies from providing Huawei with technology. As time goes on, he may continue to prioritize economic gains over strategic concerns.

The era of action ultimately forced Trump to choose deal-making over militarism. He could change his mind in the future—particularly if he thinks he will look weak for not responding to new provocations, real or perceived—but the frame for the next 18 months appears to be set. A former senior official in the Bush administration who is sympathetic to Bolton on some issues told me that Trump is so wrapped up in the image of a deal maker yet so ignorant of the issues that he will "sign on to half-assed deals that he does not understand." Referring to Iran, he said, "does anyone think Pompeo's strict conditions and objectives for negotiations will remain in place" once Trump gets involved? When a business deal that Trump made as a developer turned sour, he would go to court for a do-over. But taking a foreign-policy risk is different. As the former Bush official points out, the president has "no option of taking the country into chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings if it doesn't work out." By the time the bill comes due, the 2020 election will probably be over so he's unlikely to care.

Trump will still act freely in accordance with his own instincts on other fronts. It was obvious in Osaka that his heart is with other authoritarian leaders. He embraced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and joked with Vladimir Putin about Russian election interference. He did not know what Putin meant by his comment that Western liberalism is obsolete and didn't care to find out. Meanwhile U.S. relations with the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan are at post-Cold War lows. It is often, and rightly, said of Trump that he is undisciplined and loses interest in subjects quickly. But he has slowly and steadily chipped away at the pillars of the free world and used the rubble to lay the foundations of an illiberal alternative.  

As during the previous twist in the narrative, Trump now finds himself with a national security team out of sync with his preferences. Changes are inevitable. Pompeo will likely survive. He is nothing if not adaptable. After the Iran decision, he and Mike Pence let it be known that although they supported military action they were equally enthusiastic about the president's U-turn. It's hard to see how Bolton can stay. Trump has long known that Bolton wanted war more than he does. He sidelined him on North Korea and overruled him on Iran. For his part, Bolton has privately attacked Pompeo, long a Trump favorite, as falling captive to the State Department bureaucracy and has predicted that the North Korea policy will fail.

Bolton has given an unusually large number of interviews to reporters and has been rewarded with positive profiles lauding his influence and bureaucratic prowess. Those of us who predicted that he would cling to the post of national security adviser, as it would be the last job he'd ever get, may have been wrong. In fact, Bolton looks and sounds as if he is preparing to exit on his own terms. Better that than being sent on a never-ending tour of the world's most obscure places. For Bolton, leaving because he's too tough for Trump is the perfect way to save face. Otherwise, he may be remembered as the man who presided over one of the weakest national security teams in modern American history and someone whose myopic obsessions—like international treaties or communism in Venezuela—meant the United States lost precious time in preparing for the national security challenges of the future.  

Who will replace Bolton is unclear. The best-case scenario would be Biegun, the North Korea envoy. He was rumored to be the runner up to Bolton for the post in 2018. (Mattis and Kelly, pushed for him, although at that point he had not spent time with Trump. Now he has.) Trump may see him as the man to oversee his various negotiations, as he has on North Korea. But will Trump go for a mainstream figure who would not be out of place in a traditional Republican presidency?

If the past is prelude, Trump may turn instead to his favorite source of information, Fox News, just as he did for Bolton. One of Tucker Carlson's frequent guests on his show is a retired Army colonel by the name of Douglas McGregor. McGregor served in the first Gulf War and appears to be ideologically aligned with Carlson, favoring retrenchment from the Middle East and good relations with authoritarian states. His appointment would be treated as a calamity by the Republican foreign policy establishment—which is one reason it may appeal to the president. Appointing a cheerleading cable news commentator to one of the nation's most senior posts sounds ludicrous, but—as Carlson's recent role demonstrates—it is way we live now.

One way or another, Trump seems determined to present an image of himself in 2020 as a deal maker who is getting tough with allies who have taken advantage of the United States and making peace with the country's enemies. The risks are enormous. Trump may strike bad deals. He could permanently weaken America's influence and encourage aggression against America's allies. But it may work for him politically, throwing the Democrats off balance and setting the stage for a second term in which he will be empowered to follow his instincts to their logical conclusion. The bullets Trump never fired in his first term— such as withdrawal from NATO and the World Trade Organization—may be put back in the chamber. The 75-year-old American led international order will be back in his firing line. Men like Pompeo may tell themselves they can steer him in a different direction. But if they finally stand up to him, they may find themselves with urgent business to attend to in Ulaanbaatar or, worse still, at a potash factory in the Urals.

Where John Roberts Is Taking the Court

Posted: 05 Jul 2019 03:00 AM PDT

Last year's Supreme Court term ended with a vivid display of willed gullibility by Chief Justice John Roberts. In Hawaii v. Trump, the "travel ban" case, Roberts announced he would pay no attention to that Islamophobia behind the curtain and instead treat the ban as a "facially neutral policy denying certain foreign nationals the privilege of admission." This year's term ended with the same man stating in Department of Commerce v. New York, the census case, that he would not ignore the government's lies: "We are 'not required to exhibit a naiveté from which ordinary citizens are free.'"

Donald Trump's administration, in both of these cases and in ever so many others, lied in its high-profile submissions to various federal courts. Until last week, the response of the Supreme Court's conservative majority has been to put its fingers in its ears and proclaim, like Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, "Nobody's hearing nothing!"

The fact that Roberts decided, in at least one case, that he would no longer play rubber-stamp judge is a huge development; much of the future of our democracy depends on whether this was a cosmetic move by a reluctant Trump supporter or a genuine renaissance of Roberts's judicial conscience.

Movement conservatives certainly found Roberts's vote—against the administration in its quest to put a citizenship question on the census—alarming. Matt Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union, tweeted, "I'm for impeaching the chief justice for lying to all of us about his support of the Constitution." The conservative radio host Laura Ingraham called for his resignation. The Fox TV presenter Lou Dobbs suggested that Trump simply refuse to obey the Court's order.

It's easy to understand their worry. The administration has repeatedly treated the Court—newly "enhanced" with Trump's appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh—as an outpost of the executive branch, with the task of taming lower courts. Judicial skepticism might affect the administration's legal strategy the way water affected the Wicked Witch of the West.

Following the census decision, some SCOTUS nerds thought the opinion was a meaningless feint. The redoubtable Joshua Matz, for instance, suggested that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross "need only issue a new memorandum explaining why he wants to include a citizenship question." But as administrative lawyers know, a new memo requires a new rationale with an "administrative record" to back it up, which requires, in turn, a bit more than a Mylar balloon and a greeting card. The logistics of a new record would be dauntingly difficult.

This doesn't mean that Trump won't try to scare one up. The Commerce Department on Tuesday notified counsel that it had given up the fight for the citizenship question. Then on Wednesday, Trump tweeted that the administration was "absolutely going forward" with the question. In a hearing that afternoon, Joseph Hunt, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, admitted uncertainty, but told the judge that the current plan is apparently to go back to the Supreme Court and ask for an order "to simplify and expedite the remaining litigation and provide clarity to the process going forward."

No one seems to know exactly what will happen next, but it's possible this case will end up back at the high court. Maryland District Judge George Hazel asked the government to give him a definite answer about its plans by Friday.

So should we believe that Roberts secretly had some cockamamie plan to sneak the question through after pretending to reject it? If so, it was an odd strategy. All he had to do was vote the other way, and the case was over. Instead he issued a stinging rebuke. (Matz did note, "This is the first time an agency action has ever been set aside by the Court as pretextual.")

I suspect that Roberts voted as he did because at some point he grew tired of being lied to by Solicitor General Noel Francisco and treated contemptuously by President Trump. In the year since Roberts played dead for the travel ban, Trump has blasted a federal judge in California as an "Obama judge" because he blocked new asylum rules. In a move unprecedented in American history, the chief justice directly and publicly reprimand a sitting president: "We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges," Roberts said in an official statement from the Court.

Trump, never one to take a hint, responded with an attack on Roberts by name, insisting that the chief's cherished ideal of judicial independence is a joke. "Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have 'Obama judges,' and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country."

I understand that Roberts is not a secret moderate. He's a lifelong conservative with far-reaching legal goals of rolling back civil-rights, economic, and environmental gains. But if the chief justice is sick and tired of being treated like Francisco's idiot intern, the possible ramifications are huge. If he were to begin taking account of facts—taking this administration at its word when it tells the world of its plans to punish Muslims, torment immigrants, disfranchise its opponents, cripple Congress, and silence its critics—then there may be more times when the chief says, in so many words: Stop lying. Do the job right or give it to someone who can.

That in itself would constitute a major change. As the recent term-end summaries make clear, this Court has not yet attained a stable 5–4 conservative equilibrium. The two moderate justices, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, seem to want to wheel and deal. Both of the new justices are feeling their way. Both have crossed the partisan aisle in surprising ways. Certainly Kavanaugh has adopted the chief as a kind of mentor and model. Though Gorsuch seems to prefer Clarence Thomas, he too may not be locked into that pose. Perhaps this most polarized Court could grow a center.

It's just possible that Roberts's vote was not pure pique, but a genuine willingness to question the administration's lies. Of course, that may be a delusive hope. But "live in hope," the old Barbadian proverb bids, "though you die in despair."

Is Joe Biden ‘Too Old’?

Posted: 05 Jul 2019 02:00 AM PDT

Joe Biden is looking for that sweet spot between "wise" and "over the hill."

That can be hard to find when your voting record is older than some of the other candidates in the race. People who know him have told me that the former vice president has decided, out of both strategy and conviction, that he should never apologize. He still sees himself as the same young-buck visionary, the one who was barely old enough to be sworn in to the Senate when he first won his seat in 1972, three years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Everything about Biden comes back to how long he's been around. He was working on civil-rights legislation for years before any of the other candidates, which is part of the reason he was "compromising" with segregationists. The Violence Against Women Act, the Assault Weapons Ban, the Voting Rights Act renewals—he has been part of more legislation on pretty much every topic than his competitors. He knows more of the history and ins and outs of how it went down. (Biden's press secretary, TJ Ducklo, declined comment on questions about the candidate's age.)

Biden believes that his experience gives him an important window into how Washington can work, from a time before the days when political discourse was more like the Lincoln-Douglas debates than rats scratching at each other over stale bread crusts. And he has the comfort of knowing that primary voters tend to skew both older and more moderate, and have been telling pollsters so far in this primary race that they value experience.

The questions aren't just about Biden's years in office. Responding in April to the women who accused him of unwelcome physical contact, Biden acknowledged that he'd come up in a different era, and that he knew he'd need to change with the changing times. He snaps sometimes. He can ramble. The references can be dated, as when shortly after he launched his campaign, he mixed up Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher. When he has these gaffes, rivals and pundits ascribe added significance. He is deft with selfies, but also defends himself by pointing out things like being the deciding vote on the Gurney Amendment (which happened in 1974). Since he entered the race this spring, he's spent more days off the trail than on (though, notably, he often meets with supporters for longer than his rivals, and on the day of that big fish-fry event in South Carolina two Fridays ago, he was the last candidate to leave).

Then there was his exchange with Senator Kamala Harris of California at last week's debate, when she went after him for his opposition to public-school busing in the 1970s. Biden's surprised response prompted a number of people to use the words old and weak with me. Calling him out of touch and unapologetic is how the Harris campaign has kept going after him, even as Biden and his aides have responded by calling her grasping and opportunistic (including by pointing to comments on Wednesday in which Harris got tangled up trying to give her own position on busing).

[David A. Graham: 'My time is up. I'm sorry.']

Or there's the story he told last weekend at a Seattle fundraiser, of how it would have been okay to make fun of a "gay waiter" five years ago. He told the same story in 2014, as having been okay 15 years before. Five years ago, he illustrated the story with an imitation of the waiter, with a put-on lisp.

Biden would be the oldest president ever if he wins the nomination and is elected—he'll turn 78 two weeks after Election Day—beating out the current record holder, Donald Trump, who was 71 when he was inaugurated. (Though Bernie Sanders, who's 14 months older than Biden, would outdo both.)

[Read: The gray race for the White House]

Biden is sensitive to questions about his age. His insiders told me he'd immediately shot down speculation seeded by people close to him about potentially making a pledge to serve only one term. Two weeks ago, when introduced at a Planned Parenthood forum in South Carolina, he stopped a moderator who said, "You've had a long career in politics—" saying, "Stop emphasizing the long part, will you?"

"He's like Farmers Insurance," Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana told me in May, just before Biden's official kickoff rally in Philadelphia, appropriating the company's slogan. "He knows a thing or two because he's done a thing or two."


Biden's pitch is that he connects to the new generation, because Millennials have been awakened politically in response to Trump in a way that mirrors how he remembers his generation being inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as he told Reverend Al Sharpton in a recent interview.

The contrasts can play out within a few minutes, like at that Planned Parenthood forum, when a woman spoke emotionally about having three abortions after being assaulted by an ex-husband and while in the military, pressing Biden on how he changed his position on the Hyde Amendment. Biden's initial answer struck some in the audience as patronizing, given who would be in the crowd at a Planned Parenthood primary event. In short, he made the issue about him: "First of all, a lot of you women, maybe a lot of the men out here don't realize what incredible courage it took to stand up and say that—because the fact of the matter is that when you recall … The reason I wrote the Violence Against Women Act in the first place, and I wrote it, was because of what I've seen, what I understand happening, going into neighborhoods and communities and it knows no color, it knows no bounds, it knows no ethnicity. For you to stand and recall that, brings it all back immediately."

What he said after that, though, went further. Biden spoke passionately about how he thought that the woman's ex-husband should be in jail. He cited statistics about transgender women being killed. He stumbled a little bit—much like he stumbled at the debate last Thursday, still trying to keep up with staff who have been pushing him to squeeze his senatorial answers into 30 seconds—but told the woman he wanted to talk with her in person backstage and learn from her about what he didn't know.

In a pre-debate briefing last week, a person who, by the rules reporters had to agree to as a condition of attending, could only be named as a "Biden campaign official," responded to one question about age by noting that Sanders is a year older and insisting no one ever talks about that. Swatting back arguments about making room for a new generation, the campaign official said, "It is the rare Democratic campaign where there isn't a candidate calling for a new generation or someone to pick up the torch," adding, "This is a process, and it's an open process for a reason."

About six hours later, Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who was still in diapers through Biden's second term in the Senate, called for Biden to pass the torch (it's printed on his campaign merchandise)—by citing a speech that Biden gave in 1986 calling for the torch to be passed to the next generation. "I'm still holding on to that torch," Biden said, and a mini-melee erupted onstage. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has been talking for more than a year about how he doesn't think Democrats can win by saying "back" or "again," tried to get in with, "As the youngest guy on the stage, I feel like I probably ought to contribute …" before being cut off by Sanders saying, "As part of Joe's generation, let me respond." The moderators gave the time to Sanders, who argued that the question was about ideas, not age.  

Biden's team feels confident that his greatest strength in the campaign is that people know him to be a decent man. But voters have never gone for anyone they knew anywhere near as well as they know Biden, or anyone who'd been in politics as long. Jonathan Rauch, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank (and an Atlantic contributing editor) coined in 2003 what he calls the "14-year rule," which found that every president since the beginning of the 20th century had been elected president or vice president a maximum of 14 years since his first election. Biden would pass the 14-year rule three times over, with five years to spare.

On Wednesday, I called Rauch to ask how he'd assess Biden's chances. "The math says he might be the nominee, but he definitely won't be president—if you believe in math," Rauch told me. "If the public goes for someone who's been around this long, that would show a substantive change of heart or a backlash against Trump—that would be a statement on Biden's part that they don't want anyone who breaks a lot of china and knows what he's doing," he told me.

There's no magic to the rule, just a happenstance that hits on what Rauch thinks is a fundamental truth about the American public's desire for fresh faces and ideas. With Biden, he said, "I don't think we've ever seen that kind of staleness before—either he's nonviable if you believe the 14-year rule, or he completely blows the rule out of the water."

Trump has called Biden "sleepy" and said "he looks different than he used to, he acts different than he used to, he's even slower than he used to be," prompting Biden to respond in Iowa a few weeks ago, "Look at him and look at me and answer the question."

[Read: It's still the Trump show]

Everyone else so far who's made the age arguments against Biden has made them very carefully. Seth Moulton, the representative from Massachusetts who launched a presidential campaign late and has been swinging hard to get in, has a line that he uses all the time about how it's time for the generation who voted for the Iraq War to move aside and be replaced by the generation who fought in the Iraq War. This isn't very subtle: Biden supported the war, and Moulton is a decorated Marine who served four tours, but it's an attack that Moulton is making after a few years of being a favorite of Biden, who included him in the group of young veterans in Democratic politics who reminded him of his late son Beau.

"What I'm really saying is not specific to him—it's a generational argument. I don't know many people in their mid-70s who are as young and energetic as Joe Biden, but our government should represent all of us. We have a lot of people who represent the older generations, and I think we need more people who represent younger people," Moulton told me this week, on a layover on his way to campaign in Nevada. He recalled how confused senators were last year about how Facebook works when they called Mark Zuckerberg in for a regulatory hearing last April—and those senators were, for the most part, younger than Biden. "I think he's a very sensitive guy, but our national-security challenges right now are drones and artificial intelligence and space warfare; I don't think people look to the Vietnam generation as the generation that's going to figure that out."

Among the people who are voters, that hasn't been the case. Even after taking hits at the debate last week, Biden is still at the top of all the polls. Moulton has yet to register in any of them.

The Strengthening Anti-China Bonds Between Hong Kong and Taiwan

Posted: 05 Jul 2019 02:06 AM PDT

TAIPEI—When Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping signed the agreement that would hand control of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, East Asia was a vastly different place from today.

It was 1984: China was in the early days of its economic rise and was experiencing one of its most politically free periods under Communist rule; Hong Kong was the booming financial hub and crown jewel of what remained of the British Empire; and then there was Taiwan, which was nearing the end of nearly four decades of brutal martial law. At the time, if you had wagered on which of those places would be the freest 35 years later, Taiwan would have had long odds.

Since then, China has become the world's second-largest economy and a major military power, while still spending more on domestic security, including concentration camps perhaps holding up to two million Muslims in Xinjiang. Hong Kong's relevance to China as an entrepot—useful in the initial years following the handover—has diminished greatly, and the territory has been gripped by protests as Beijing has eroded long-held freedoms. Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party has vowed to bring under its control, democratized in the 1990s and has become the focus of China's buildup.

For most of this time, the relationship between Hong Kong and Taiwan had been largely limited to trade and tourism (and given that Beijing regards Taiwan as being part of its territory, Hong Kong's local government does not even officially recognize it). That is now changing, and ties between the two are being forged from pro-democracy activists right up to the government level.

[Read: The death of democracy in Hong Kong]

China's influence over both Hong Kong and Taiwan has steadily spread from their economies into their political systems, and Beijing has promoted the "one country, two systems" model it uses to administer Hong Kong as its favored system, were Taiwan to submit to peaceful unification. But as Hong Kong's pro-Beijing government ignores the demands of peaceful protesters, and China's continuing encroachment on "one country, two systems" there discredits the notion that it would offer any degree of autonomy for Taiwan, demonstrators in Hong Kong are looking more and more to Taiwan, and a sense of solidarity is growing between the two. That is likely to be a major source of concern for Beijing (and, indeed, Chinese state media have warned the two sides from cooperating).

While top officials in Hong Kong appear to be ignoring the concerns of protesters there, senior leaders in Taiwan are speaking up for the demonstrators. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told a gathering of politicians, business executives and journalists at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit last month of Hong Kong's worsening political situation since it was handed over to China. Hong Kongers had been denied full democratic rights, some of its elected legislators had been removed for political reasons, and journalistic freedoms were being eroded, Wu noted. Putting the blame squarely on Beijing, he expressed his support for the vast numbers who have taken to Hong Kong's streets to push back against a controversial extradition bill.

"These two outposts of democracy share the same values, and our paths and destinies are closely linked," Wu said of Hong Kong and Taiwan. "We both stand on the front line against the expansion of authoritarianism."

"Taiwan needs to hold firm and succeed so that people in Hong Kong and beyond can still see the beacon light of hope," he added. "We also know that if we fall, others may soon follow."

Wu's remarks came amid a series of events, rallies and meetings here in Taipei and in Hong Kong, evincing the strengthening bonds between the pair. At a grassroots level, Taiwanese Facebook users were switching their avatars to a blackened Hong Kong flag, while organizing events around the country to show support and raise awareness for Hong Kong's plight. On June 16, a march in Taipei drew 10,000 participants, according to organizers. At the Golden Melody Awards here—effectively the Grammys for countries that speak Chinese languages—the Hong Kong musician and activist Denise Ho thanked Taiwan for its support, while a group of artists from Hong Kong recently recorded a solidarity anthem, sung in Mandarin and Cantonese, the dominant languages in Taiwan and Hong Kong, respectively.

[Read: Why I won't give up my dream for Hong Kong]

Even at the highest levels, Taiwan has helped derail the extradition bill, which would enable Hong Kong to extradite criminal suspects to China, Taiwan or the former Portuguese colony of Macau.

The legislation was initially proposed after the February 2018 murder of a Hong Kong woman, Poon Hiu-wing, by her boyfriend, Chan Tong-kai, also a Hong Kong resident, while the couple were on vacation in Taiwan. Chan fled back to Hong Kong, and has not been prosecuted, but Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, argued that an extradition bill would enable his transfer to Taiwan so that he would be subject to its courts. Taiwan's government, however, said that it would not prosecute him even if the bill was passed, giving succor to critics who see the bill as a trojan horse that would facilitate the disappearing of anyone Beijing wished.

Protesters finally won a small, mostly symbolic, victory after weeks of rallies, that included a march on June 9 which drew, according to organizers, a million peaceful demonstrators. Lam initially said she would not bow to the opposition but by the following week, after police used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on largely peaceful protesters, she announced she would temporarily suspend, but not withdraw, the bill. That wasn't enough for Hong Kongers demanding a complete withdrawal, however, and days later, an even bigger protest march took place, which according to organizers involved two million participants.

Due to a weighted system that allows half of Hong Kong's 70-member legislature to be selected by pro-China business interests, with the other half elected by residents, legislators in favor of greater democratic freedoms are in the minority. Those in the minority fighting for greater freedoms for Hong Kong see a kindred spirit in Taiwan. "Hong Kongers feel that we are not alone in our fight against this Goliath," Ray Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, told me. "Hong Kong and Taiwan are both at the front line of the global fight to stop Beijing's creeping authoritarianism and control, our cooperation and mutual support will be key to defending our freedom."

The implications of the relationship between Hong Kong and Taiwan stretch beyond just the extradition bill and the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong. The majority of Taiwanese are already opposed to unification with China, but if Beijing cannot be seen to implement the "one country, two systems" framework in an even-handed manner in Hong Kong, what prospect does it have of being putting in place here, argue Taiwanese critics of China. "We are an example for Taiwan that if they accept 'one country, two systems' from China, this will probably happen to them," Ho, the musician, said in an interview.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's President, opposes unification with China, but troublingly for the Communist Party, events in Hong Kong have even forced prominent members of the Beijing-friendly opposition party, the Kuomintang, to distance themselves from their giant neighbor. Han Kuo-yu, China's favored candidate in this month's primary to become the Kuomintang challenger to Tsai in elections next year, said that if elected, the Hong Kong model would come to Taiwan, "over my dead body". "The political elite in Taiwan are watching the events in Hong Kong closely," said Lauren Dickey, a China analyst at CNA, an Arlington, Virginia-based research firm.

At a lower level, activists here are beginning to see in Hong Kong a dangerous future for Taiwan. Leaders of Taiwan's Sunflower Movement in 2014 have ties with members of the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong of that same year—both protest movements were effectively attempts by youth to push back against growing Chinese influence—and an array of grassroots events have been organized across Taiwan in recent weeks as demonstrations in Hong Kong have ramped up.

Monique Wu, a Taiwanese drama therapist living in Taipei, has participated in two solidarity events since mid-June involving Hong Kongers living in Taiwan telling their stories, Taiwanese youth sharing their feelings and even some theatrical performances.

"The chilling effect of tyranny is capable of crossing the seas and infecting the world," she told me. "If today we don't stand up for Hong Kong, there won't be anyone to stand up for Taiwan."

Photos of the Week: Cool Pup, Orion Launch, Pitch Invader

Posted: 04 Jul 2019 09:54 PM PDT

Flooding in Irkutsk, a freak hailstorm in Mexico, an eruption near Sicily, Fourth of July fireworks in New York, a DMZ visit in North Korea, Women's World Cup semifinals in France, water shortages in India, haute couture fashion in Paris, surfing in Sydney, and much more.

Why Waves of Seaweed Have Been Smothering Caribbean Beaches

Posted: 04 Jul 2019 11:00 AM PDT

In 2018, as seaweed piled up on beaches throughout the Caribbean, it began to rot. Already stinking and sulfurous, the thick layers began to attract insects and repel tourists. The seaweed—a type of brown algae called sargassum—had grown in the ocean and washed ashore in unprecedented quantities. It prevented fishers from getting into the water, and entangled their nets and propellers. It entangled sea turtles and dolphins, too, fatally preventing them from surfacing for air. It died and sank offshore, smothering seagrass meadows and coral reefs. Barbados declared a national emergency.

In normal years, sargassum is a blessing rather than a curse. Mats of it drift around the ocean, held afloat by gas-filled bladders that look like grapes. They accumulate in the North Atlantic, forming the Sargasso Sea—a region that the explorer Sylvia Earle has described as a "golden floating rainforest." The fronds are a breeding site for American eels, a sanctuary for turtle hatchlings, and a haven for hundreds of other species, some of which live nowhere else. The Sargassum fish, for example, is a small, frog-faced predator whose body has adapted to perfectly mimic the seaweed.

The Caribbean would usually experience a few small mats of sargassum washing ashore in a given year, until 2011, when the seaweed first began arriving in unexpectedly large waves. Similar pileups have occurred almost every year since; 2015 and 2018 saw especially bad blooms. Some countries have set up nets to block the incoming algae, or hired people to clear affected beaches with rakes and backhoes. And still the sargassum comes.

The seaweed does have one very convenient trait: The chlorophyll pigment within it reflects infrared light more strongly than the surrounding seawater does. To satellites that detect infrared, sargassum blazes like a bonfire. Six years ago, Jim Gower from Fisheries and Oceans Canada used satellite images to show that the 2011 bloom had an unusual origin. In April, sargassum had begun growing off the coast of Brazil and near the mouth of the Amazon River, in an area far south of its normal range. By July, it had spread across the entire Atlantic.  

Now Mengqiu Wang, from the University of South Florida, and her colleagues have shown that this ocean-spanning bloom, which they've dubbed the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, is now an annual feature. By analyzing 19 years of satellite images, they showed that the belt first appeared in 2011, and has reappeared almost every summer since (except for 2013). Last June, when the belt was at its thickest, it contained more than 22 million tons of seaweed, and stretched fully across the Atlantic's waters, from the Gulf of Mexico to the western coast of Africa.  

That figure is likely to be an underestimate: With a spatial resolution of one kilometer, the satellite data doesn't capture small chunks of Sargassum. "It highlights the most aggregated areas rather than describing the entirety of what is present," says  Deb Goodwin, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association.

[Read: Kelp is the new kale]

The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt is a loose collection of seaweed scattered over a very large area, not a continuous bridge. It's also not produced by the Sargasso Sea, which lies further north; Wang's team confirmed that by simulating how particles of seaweed would move in the Atlantic's currents. They concluded that the belt likely develops from local patches of sargassum that occur naturally in the tropics. But such patches have always existed. Why have they only recently started to form sprawling blooms?

Wang's team thinks that the new growth was connected to two factors on opposite sides of the Atlantic: the water discharged by the Amazon and upwelling currents rising off West Africa. These two phenomena pump nutrients into the tropical Atlantic. When they're unusually strong, as they apparently were in 2009, they effectively flood the ocean with fertilizer, allowing sargassum to run amok.

But why, then, did the seaweed not bloom in 2010? Wang's team thinks that it was delayed by low salinity (due to the influx of Amazon freshwater) and abnormally high temperatures—conditions that suppress the growth of sargassum. Only in 2011, when temperatures returned to normal, could the seaweed make use of the influx of nutrients from previous years, and go wild.

And the bigger the blooms in the summer, the more likely they are to leave behind patches that survive through the winter. If the conditions are right the following year, these "seed populations" can restart another bloom. "Each successive bloom makes it difficult to imagine an end to this self-reinforcing cycle," says Amy Siuda, an ecologist and oceanographer at Eckerd College. "This is likely the new normal."

Read: [After last year's hurricanes, Caribbean lizards are better at holding on for dear life]

So, a quartet of factors—strong Amazon discharge, strong West African upwelling, moderate temperatures, and the presence of a seed population—could potentially explain the Sargassum Belt, including why it appears every summer, and why it was especially thick in 2015 and 2018. But such factors "have impacted the central Atlantic Ocean for decades, if not centuries," says Siuda "Why are we only seeing sargassum bloom in this region now? What tipped the balance? There is clearly still more to learn."

Chuanmin Hu, who led the study, agrees. "I have to emphasize that we have no direct evidence to prove any of this," he says. "These are our speculations, some educated and some hand-waving." They've been forced into that because many of the factors they identified aren't regularly measured. For example, they could only find data on the nutrients in the Amazon for two years: 2010 and 2018. The latter levels were much higher, which might explain why sargassum blooms were so big that year. Or it might not. The river might have more nutrients due to increased fertilizer use, and stronger runoffs due to deforestation. Or it might not. "I don't think there's enough data," Hu says. "It takes a huge amount of money to go there and take measurements."

Of the four factors that the team identified, only sea surface temperatures are regularly measured. And while many scientists have suggested that hot water could speed the growth of sargassum, "we found the opposite," Hu says. That's not to say climate change is irrelevant, he cautions: Changing patterns of rain and wind could, for example, influence the strength of the West African upwelling. Nor should the Caribbean count on rising temperatures to solve its sargassum woes, because the pace of change is likely too slow to make a difference in the near future.

Hu adds that other factors could be behind the rise of the Sargassum Belt, including nutrient-rich dust blowing in from the Sahara and changes in ocean currents. And several aspects of the blooms still don't make sense. "If I were you, I would ask: If you have so much nitrogen and phosphorus, why do other [algae] in the ocean not grow as fast?" he says. "I can't answer that."

Goodwin adds that "scientific understanding of Sargassum growth and bloom dynamics under natural, open ocean conditions is extremely limited," since scientists have only addressed these questions in lab experiments. And the sargassum itself is changing, too. Siuda says that the recent blooms have included "a previously rare and genetically distinct form of sargassum" that comes from the south, differs from those in the Sargasso Sea, and harbors a slightly different community of organisms.

Little is known about this strain, or how the bloom is affecting the ecology around it, which makes it hard to predict how it will react to future conditions. And since it likely evolved in relative isolation from its northerly relatives, its northward expansion suggests that "environmental conditions and ocean circulation patterns in the central Atlantic may have been shifting, undetected, for longer than the time interval examined by [Wang and her colleagues]," says Goodwin. "A critical larger question emerges: What drove such an ecological transformation at unprecedented scale?"

In the absence of such knowledge, it is very hard to predict when and where future blooms will occur. "Like hurricanes or nor'easters, we will likely be able to predict the severity of the upcoming season, but we won't be able to predict exactly where the inundations will come ashore," Siuda adds.

As Molwyn Joseph, Antigua's environment minister, said last summer, "We have made the assumption that this is going to be an annual thing, and the same way we prepare for hurricanes we have to prepare for Sargassum."  

The Rituals of ‘Becoming America’

Posted: 04 Jul 2019 12:33 PM PDT

Our two great American holidays are, of course, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

They're particularly American: Independence Day, for obvious reasons. Thanksgiving, because no one else observes it (other than Canadians, who have their own version on their own timetable), or can keep track of when it is. For Americans overseas it's a particularly wonderful gathering day, on what the Brits or Koreans or French people around you assume is just another Thursday.

They have their rituals: In November, when it's cold, we have the family gatherings, the pie and turkey, the stuporous sessions watching football or parades on TV. In July, when it's hot, we have the picnics, the parades, the hot dogs, and the fireworks.

And they're hard to screw up: For Thanksgiving, the perils are the slog of jammed travel, and the likelihood of cranky relatives, or a turkey or pie that doesn't turn out right. For the Fourth of July, it's mainly the chance of rain, or mishaps with firecrackers (which, yes, genuinely scare dogs and cats), or children who become cranky by the time it's dark enough for fireworks.

From the 2017 Palisades neighborhood parade along MacArthur Boulevard, riders from the United Horsemen's Association. As a mounted group, they traditionally are the finale to the parade. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

It's hard to screw up the Fourth of July—but it's not impossible, as residents of Washington, D.C., are witnessing today. Over the decades, this holiday has been one of the least politicized, most intentionally inclusive points on the city's calendar. I lived in Washington for a year as a toddler, when my dad, then a Navy doctor, was stationed at the Bethesda Naval Hospital during the Korean War. Long ago I saw the old, now-lost home-movie clip from the 1950s, of me and my little sister running around on the National Mall on the Fourth of July, waiting for the fireworks. When we raised our own children in D.C., we loved every summer going to the Palisades neighborhood parade along MacArthur Boulevard, which grew longer every year with groups that reflect ever-broadening aspects of D.C. life.

Dancers from Fraternidad Alma Boliviana, one of many dance troupes that traditionally march in the Palisades neighborhood parade. This was from 2017. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Local politicians would march in the parade—candidates for mayor or City Council or Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Every Scout troop and local band or hobbyist group would send in a contingent. But national politicians kept far away, the president furthest of all. The Fourth of July was for celebrating America in its flawed-but-aspirational idealism, and in its campy, jokey, small-d democratic inclusiveness. The silly neighborhood parades are parts of the rituals that let us celebrate why we love the country, for all its failures, and what it can become.


This year that ritual, at least in Washington, is disrupted, in what we hope is an aberrational display. Apart from going to  neighborhood events today, and the evening celebrations, what is another way for Americans to reclaim, and renew, the rituals that reflect what Independence Day has long stood for?

I have a reading suggestion for today, or the long weekend. It's a short book, Become America, by my longtime friend Eric Liu, who is a co-founder of Citizen University in Seattle.

Liu, who was born to immigrant Chinese parents in Poughkeepsie, New York, was trained as a lawyer and worked as a White House policy analyst and speechwriter. Through programs, events, and writings at Citizen University, he has over the past decade-plus advanced a theory and practice of modern citizenship, which is directly addressed against the despair and cynicism that are such natural reactions to today's cruelties and crises.

Big-tent inclusiveness at the Palisades parade (with the "Yachtsmen for President" display)  (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

The conceptually most important part of Liu's new book is its forthright argument that active citizenship should be a civic religion. The book consists of 19 "sermons" that Liu has delivered at the institutions he calls "Civic Saturdays." The big idea behind the sermons, and the religious-format gathering, is Liu's call to a level of belief and commitment similar to that of a great religion—but where the underlying faith is in the process of democracy itself.

A  section from his preface lays out the concept clearly:

Throughout 2016, Jená Cane and I kicked around ideas for a new civic ritual that would have the moral pull and communal feel of a faith gathering. We're the cofounders of a nonprofit called Citizen University, whose mission is to foster a culture of powerful citizenship in the United States. (We're also spouses!)

[After the 2016 election] we put together the first ever Civic Saturday … Civic Saturday has the arc of a faith gathering: we sing together, we turn to the strangers next to us and talk about a common question, we hear poetry and readings, there is a sermon that ties those texts to the issues and ethical choices of the times, and then we sing together again and reflect on what actions we commit to taking.

But this gathering is not about church or temple or mosque religion. It is about American civic religion: the creed of ideals stated at our nation's founding and restated at junctures of crisis (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed.

Why the analogy to faith gatherings? In part because over the millennia the major faiths have figured out something about how to help people find meaning and belonging, how to interpret texts and to reckon with the gap between our ideals and our reality, how to sustain hope and heart in a sea of cynicism and hate. And in part because we truly believe that democracy in America is an act of faith. Not faith in the divine but in the people with whom we hold the fate of this fragile experiment …

The idea that a religion is only as good as its effects can apply to American civic religion as well … [William] James at one point observes that war can summon in a people common purpose and self-sacrifice and ingenuity and he says a society needs the "moral equivalent of war."

I say we need the moral equivalent of religion, and that is what civic religion is.

More dancers from Alma Boliviana, taking part in a ritual of civic engagement, in the 2017 Palisades neighborhood Fourth of July Parade in Washington (James Fallows / The Atlantic)


The other significant theme connecting Liu's essays is their emphasis on practicalities, rituals, doing rather than wishing. As he says in one of his sermons:

Democracy, when it's working, is a game of infinite repeat play. It never ends! We believe that it's necessary in the face of such unending uncertainty to provide a ritual structure for belief in the possibility of democracy.

Why do we deliberately echo the elements of a faith gathering? Because that language, those forms, these rituals and habits all resonate on a deep level …

In these darkest of days, in a time when politics is so fiercely polarized, when traditional religion fuels so much fundamentalist fanaticism, we want to appreciate anew the simple miracle of democratic citizenship …

This stuff matters not simply because it answers a universal and timeless yearning for shared purpose. It matters here because it locates us atomized, amnesiac Americans in the broad scheme of history and in a larger weave of morality. It matters because the norms and institutions of democracy are being corroded from within and without.

Many of the sermons address specifics of how to convert a hazy concern about civic engagement to feasible to-do goals for the next day or week or year.


Go to your local parades. Have some hot dogs, or your food of choice. If of age, enjoy a beer. Be careful with the fireworks.

And as you reflect on whether a country observing its 243rd birthday can become a better, freer, fairer, finer version of itself, consider Eric Liu's arguments in Become America.

Local engagement and the quest to become a fairer America, at the Palisades parade two years ago (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

What Do We Owe Our National Parks?

Posted: 04 Jul 2019 10:31 AM PDT

Letters From the Archives is a series in which we highlight past Atlantic stories and reactions from readers at the time.


The 2,221,766 acres that make up Yellowstone National Park now receive 4 million to 6 million visitors annually. But in 1872, the land was practically untouched. That year, President Ulysses S. Grant signed "an Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park," which designated Yellowstone "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" and sought to shield it from "settlement, occupancy, or sale." The act paved the way for other lands to be protected under the same criteria, overseen by the Department of the Interior. Today, almost 150 years later, the United States has 61 national parks.

According to Nathaniel P. Langford, an explorer and the first appointed park superintendent for Yellowstone, the idea to protect American land germinated around a campfire at Madison Junction, where the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers meet. He and other members of an expedition that had set out to determine the value of the land, Langford claimed, were struck by its natural beauty, and decided instead to advocate for its preservation.

Yet historical accounts show that Langford's motivations may not have been as purely altruistic as he implied: Notes from his diary indicate that Langford likely saw national parkland as a potential generator of railroad traffic, and even worked with a financier who was interested in extending the Northern Pacific Railway. Questions of how much tourism in national parks is desirable—and of how the parks should be maintained and who they are meant for—are as old as the parks themselves.

In the first half of the 20th century, many of these debates stemmed from disagreements between lawmakers and environmental advocates on how to interpret vague and sometimes contradictory legislation. The railroad and, eventually, cars made the parks easier to access, and a steadily growing population and intensifying interest in the parks put even more stress on the land. By the 1950s, more than 20 million people were visiting the parks every year—almost three times the highest pre–World War II figure.

Recognizing that the onslaught of visitors was taking a toll on the landscape, in 1956 the National Park Service (NPS) put together a 10-year program—dubbed Mission 66—to carry out infrastructure repairs and modernize facilities, as well as build new visitor amenities. These construction efforts were met with pushback from the authors of a February 1961 series in The Atlantic. In "Our National Parks in Jeopardy," three articles by three different writers explored the growing imbalance in the ecosystems of national parks due to human presence and development.

Devereux Butcher, Clark C. Van Fleet, and Paul Brooks believed firmly that the NPS should stop new development and limit visitation. In the first article of the series, "Resorts or Wilderness?," Butcher, the former executive secretary of what was then called the National Parks Association, argued that America's national parks were "under ceaseless attack" by the public, which he called "the new menace" (commercial interests being the old menace). His piece walked readers through the impact of human interference on six protected areas: Mount McKinley, the Everglades, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and Yosemite. Each one, he wrote, was being destroyed by new infrastructure built to accommodate a growing number of visitors and their recreational demands. The only answer to the expanding problem, Butcher contended, was to adopt a policy that prohibited building facilities in the middle of the parks. (At the time, the Wilderness Bill, which set out to clearly define the term wilderness and create a more organized system of land protection, was before the U.S. Senate, though it wouldn't be signed into law until 1964.)

In "Nature Out of Balance," Van Fleet—an author, a conservationist, and a "native Californian who for five decades [had] roamed the forests and fished the streams of the West Coast"—argued that human presence, sport, and needs were disrupting the equilibrium of the natural environment. Sequoia trees were showing signs of sickness due to injury by humans, meadows were facing erosion and damage from overgrazing, poaching was increasing, and fire was swallowing forests. In addition to curtailing tourism, Van Fleet wrote, the government should increase its funding of the parks.

In the third and final article of the series, "The Pressure of Numbers," Brooks, "a rugged canoeist" and the editor in chief of the publishing company Houghton Mifflin, wrote pointedly about the growing popularity of parks, and how accommodating crowds had led to "compromise in preservation of the natural landscape": The idea for creating parks for the people "[had] worked so well that it now [threatened] to work its own destruction."

While some development was necessary, Brooks explained, too much would be dangerous. If America was going to preserve the land without enforcing quotas on visitors, the country needed to introduce new parks, expand the area outside existing parks, or develop alternative recreation areas for outdoor activities so that protected land would not bear the burden. He concluded: "The parks themselves have been aptly called 'living museums.' Like a work of art, the natural scene is something that can be used without being used up. How we use it in America will have a very real bearing on the sort of people we become."


Atlantic readers' letters in response to the series, published in April and May of 1961, captured charged and diverse opinions on how national parks should be managed.

Geneva L. Parmley, who was attending Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, suggested that "ten million copies" of Butcher's article should be published "in pamphlet form" and "distributed to the American public."

"In the early days of human history," the Wilderness Society director Olaus J. Murie wrote, "some places were treated like shrines, to help people in their endeavor to think on a high plane." America's national parks were established with "largely the same motivation," he continued, so that "we might gain inspiration for our living." He agreed with Butcher's argument that people had strayed from those ideals, and hoped the public would "honestly study" the series.

Sigfurd F. Olson of Ely, Minnesota, a former president of the National Parks Association, thought the articles covered the current situation of the parks "very well," especially the "tremendous difficulties" the NPS had in abiding by the congressional mandate to preserve the areas for future generations. He agreed that some development should be curtailed. But the series, he wrote, failed to recognize the "courageous fighting" by the NPS to keep 95 percent of the park areas in a wilderness condition; that most of the infrastructure added, such as roads, could not be "eliminated easily or without tremendous cost"; and that any change would require "congressional authorization and interagency cooperation as well as funds." While the process would be "slow and painful," he wrote, "some real progress has, nevertheless, been made," and many of the problems presented could be solved if citizens' groups and the NPS held "amicable discussions." (Olson would go on to help edit and enact the Wilderness Act.)

"To argue that only five per cent of the park areas is developed," Butcher replied to Olson, "ignores the principle that any intrusion shatters the whole."

The then–U.S. Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico wrote a diplomatic response. As the chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, he supported the Wilderness Bill, which was before the committee. This measure, along with a bill that would protect certain shoreline areas, Anderson wrote, was "made urgent by the burgeoning demands of a growing population."

E. C. Robertson of Silver Spring, Maryland, wrote that the articles were "important and useful in stirring the American people to stop the encroachment of civilization on the wilderness." But Robertson worried that the authors' argument for less development was exclusionary: "There are whole generations … who have exactly the same right to see the wilderness as they do." Robertson continued, "Are Butcher, Van Fleet, and Brooks the only men in the country who can enjoy nature? No, they will be the first to say. But, are Butcher, Van Fleet, and Brooks the only men who know how to enjoy nature? Well, almost, they will say."

"Before your readers take Mr. Butcher's unconstructive diatribe too seriously," H. Oehlmann, the executive vice president of visitor services at Yosemite wrote, they should know that "sitting in my office some years ago, [Butcher] seriously told me that if he had his way, all visitors to Yosemite Valley would come by bicycle from El Portal." The ride, Oehlmann wrote, was 14 miles from Yosemite Village, and climbed 2,000 feet in about five miles. "Anyone for a bicycle?" he asked.

The wishes of the citizens for "whose welfare the national parks were established … should not be denied to comply with the selfish demands of a small group of nature worshipers," Antoinette Friedman of Washington, D.C., wrote. If the authors—whom she referred to as "the evangelists of the wilderness cult"—spent "one tenth" of the time they spent on "preserving the wilderness of the West" developing "adequate recreational facilities for citizens of the crowded industrial East," she suggested, they would be providing a service "rewarding to human beings as well as to nature."

It is "inconceivable that people would or could enjoy a great park like Yellowstone" if legislation cut back on infrastructure, requiring them to travel longer distances within the park and from their hotel to the park and back, Horace Marden Albright of New York City wrote: "They would take just one look and keep going. Most travelers do not have more than two weeks' vacation."

Albright, the editors noted below his letter, was the second director of the NPS, had served 10 years as the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, and was one of the four men who organized the Civilian Conservation Corps.

"I find myself in complete sympathy," wrote U.S. Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening. "But I must dissent emphatically" on the applications of Butcher's argument to Mount McKinley National Park, with "which I am very familiar." Without access, he concluded, "what value are wilderness areas?"

Finally, Mrs. George Begun of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, saw this conflict as a broader reflection of society. She wrote that it was "a revealing fact of our way of life" that the national parks—which comprised only three-fourths of 1 percent of the total land area of the United States—were "constantly in danger of commercial inroads and overdevelopment."


Today, 55 years after the passage of the Wilderness Bill, "overtourism" is a worldwide phenomenon, and America's national parks continue to face widespread maintenance issues. Years of congressional underfunding has not provided the parks with adequate resources to keep up with the impact their millions of visitors have on infrastructure and on the land. Last year, nearly 85 million people visited national parks.

Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the summer of 2018 in the House and in the Senate which, if passed, would direct a combined $6.5 billion to repairs over five years. (Both bills are still under review.) But the parks are not a priority for the executive branch. In March, President Donald Trump proposed a fiscal-year-2020 budget for the Department of the Interior that was $2 billion below the department's total budget for 2019. Of the $12.5 billion in the 2020 budget, only $2.7 billion would be allocated to the NPS, including $393.5 million for deferred maintenance projects. In 2017, Yosemite Park alone required more than $582 million worth of rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported this week, the NPS has diverted nearly $2.5 million in entrance and recreation fees to help cover the costs of Trump's "Salute to America" Fourth of July event in Washington. "By tapping entrance fees to cover the presidential event," the Post's reporters wrote, the Department of the Interior "is siphoning money that is typically used to enhance the visitor experience either on the Mall or at smaller parks across the country, with projects ranging from road and bridge repair to habitat restoration." The $2.5 million may not seem like much, but according to the Post it represents "nearly 5 percent of the funds that less-profitable parks used last year for upgrades."

This year, it seems, some of those upgrades will have to wait.

The American Paranoia of <em>Stranger Things 3</em>

Posted: 04 Jul 2019 08:52 AM PDT

This article contains some spoilers for Season 3 of Stranger Things.

Burger King. Sam Goody. Ghostbusters. New Coke. Vending machines that get stuck. Sitting in the trunk of a station wagon. Stranger Things, Netflix's mega-smash show about monsters in small-town Indiana, is so replete with the motifs of 1980s Americana that watching it can feel like an exercise in affective memory. The series is adept at pushing the right emotional buttons, to the point where an episode in the third season, Stranger Things 3, features a montage of moments from earlier episodes that precipitates nostalgia all on its own, with its Eggo waffles and its tiny, fierce, tousle-headed heroes.

But the series isn't just about the brands. This is a show about light and dark, and as deftly as it mimics the glaring neon of Reaganite consumer culture, it tweaks the conspiracy theories blooming in the shadows. Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown), the telekinetic girl taken in by a troupe of childhood friends in the first season, is the product of an MKUltra-style government experiment that tried to give superpowers to babies in the womb. In Season 2, when Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) try to offer closure to the family of a friend who was murdered by an inter-dimensional monster, they visit Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), a journalist turned professional crackpot. Bauman believes, among other things, that the Russians have somehow infiltrated Hawkins, Indiana, and that the spate of disappearances around town is connected to the government-run Hawkins National Laboratory. As a character, Murray is genially, foil-hattishly nutty. Here's the thing, though: He's not wrong.

Stranger Things is a series that lots of people love, and some other people sneer at, because it so consciously knows how to evoke pleasure, and it does so by poking at the simplest and most easily satisfiable desires. It's a referential patchwork constructed from pieces of other, beloved pop-cultural works, but it cuts its cozy analgesic with doses of caustic suspicion. In one scene in Stranger Things 3, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) hides from some assailants in a screening of Back to the Future with his friend Lucas's little sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson). Dustin tells her they're lying low, "like Oswald." Lee Harvey Oswald, Erica reminds him, was caught in a movie theater. Only because it was a setup, Dustin counters. Oswald was just a patsy. While Marty McFly innocently time-travels on the big screen in front of them, the kids debate a conspiracy theory pegged to one of the darkest events in American history. When it comes to paranoia, no space is truly safe.

Conspiracy theories, in fact, are in the show's DNA, a counterforce to all the cuddly Spielberg evocation and the tween-age bonding. Before Stranger Things bore its current title, its creators—the Duffer Brothers—reportedly named it Montauk, in reference to long-standing rumors about government-run psychological experiments on human test subjects conducted on military bases on Long Island, New York. The show's story is built on the premise that various strains of delusional thinking are actually true. The government has conducted highly unethical drug tests on human subjects. Terrifying alien monsters are real. People can become possessed by dark external forces that absorb them into one diseased hive mind. On the rare occasions when these events are exposed, the military does cover things up.

Stranger Things 3 is more deeply informed by American paranoia than ever before, as the show starts to mine classic, Cold War–inspired works of the mid-1980s. Red Dawn is an obvious overarching influence, that gung-ho story of a handful of teenagers fleeing Soviet invasion. So is Day of the Dead, George A. Romero's zombie horror about militarism and power. The Terminator, James Cameron's dystopian hit about an unconquerable cyborg killing machine, gets the show's most palpable allusion yet: an unbeatable enforcer with a motorbike and a single, ligneous facial expression.

The Duffer Brothers' pivot toward Russia is signaled in the first scene, a stylish, near-silent sequence set in 1984 that depicts a team of Soviet scientists using what appears to be a giant energy beam to break down the fabric between this world and the Upside Down. It's a comically horrible idea: The Upside Down, as seen in previous seasons, is a wasteland of an alternative realm inhabited by gruesome monsters that keep surfacing in Hawkins to abduct teenagers, possess children, and test the physical impact of tentacles on man-made structures. In Season 1, Brown's Eleven accidentally opened a portal to the Upside Down in a fit of telekinetic rage, unleashing a monster that ran amok in Hawkins and transported Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) to its ashy dimension. In Season 2, Eleven closed that same portal, after a different monster from the Upside Down possessed Will and used him as its vessel.

What could the Russians possibly want with the Upside Down? The setup for the entire eight episodes of Season 3 seems at first to be based on a simplistic premise of good and evil, one that the show's previous seasons resisted. In Season 1, Matthew Modine's Dr. Brenner was the obvious non-monstrous villain, an amoral scientist manipulating Eleven into doing his supernatural bidding on behalf of the U.S. government. In Season 3, though, Stranger Things' outlook is more complicated. All eight episodes are being released by Netflix on July 4, and the Uncle Sam-against-the-Russkies plot configuration leans heavily on red-blooded patriotism. The series is set in 1985, a year after Red Dawn was released, and the film's attitude seems to have leached into the zeitgeist. When Dustin intercepts a secret Russian-radio broadcast in the second episode, he tells the inimitable Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) that deciphering it is their chance to "be heroes. True American heroes."

While Dustin, Steve, and the new character Robin (Maya Hawke) go to bat against a perceived Soviet threat, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), Will's beleaguered mother, is indulging delusional tendencies of her own. One day early in the new season, all her magnets fall off the fridge, an arbitrary occurrence that the forgivably jumpy Joyce immediately connects to the Upside Down. Nancy, working as an intern for a group of boorish male editors at the Hawkins Post, sniffs out a conspiracy theory involving rats acting abnormally and some missing fertilizer. Will, neglected by his buddies after they all find girlfriends, also becomes convinced that the monster that possessed him in Season 2, the Predator-like Mind Flayer, is back.

In the real world, all these characters' suspicions could easily be written off as the products of psyches responding to pressure, or to trauma. After what Joyce has been through, of course she sees monsters everywhere, and Ryder's performance finds a sympathetic space between brittle neuroses and maternal protectiveness that would be hard for another actor to balance. Will's declaration that the Mind Flayer is back is a cry for help that brings his friends back to his side, reunited as a taller and more visibly pubescent team. Nancy's awful job of fetching hamburgers and coffee for chain-smoking newspapermen who belittle her and name her "Nancy Drew" would naturally lead her to pursue a story so improbable, it would make her reputation if she could break it.

Stranger Things 3, again and again, hints at how preposterous its characters' theories sound. After Joyce describes Murray Bauman as not eccentric so much as "certifiable," the grizzled police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) replies that it's a case of the "pot calling the kettle black." One of Nancy's most compelling interview subjects is, her editors tell her, a paranoid schizophrenic who is not to be trusted. When Dustin tells a friend that he's "so, so busy trying to save the world from Russians and monsters," the response is laughter. How can any of these things be true, not least all at the same time? Where, apart from the fantastical realm of 1980s film and its imitators, would they be?

The Stranger Things malcontents might observe that the show tends to do the same thing over and over again and that the formula is getting stale. The first part is accurate enough; the second isn't necessarily so. Season 2 more wholeheartedly used monsters as a metaphor for trauma, and the experience of having things happen to you that feel grotesquely, inexplicably alien. Season 3, with its recurring asides about capitalism (Ferguson's scene-stealing Erica, it turns out, is a tiny plutocrat) and its energetic exploration of the suspicious recesses of the human psyche, offers up a show for America's birthday that's more nuanced than it initially seems. A free-market economic system can be both impossibly damaging to small businesses (see: the new arrival of the Starcourt Mall in Hawkins) and a preferable alternative to the authoritarian communism of America's 1980s enemies. Pop-cultural works can be ludicrously jingoistic and yet oddly innocent. Overactive imaginations can be dangerously irrational while also being the hallmark of great storytellers everywhere.

What these ideas come down to, in the show's thrillingly propulsive and self-consciously familiar conclusion, is the nature of a country that fully believes it's the greatest in the world while also being well aware of its own capacity for destruction. If each decade has its cultural touchstones, the products of the 1980s sing out their ballads of good versus evil, their mythical vanquishers, and their naïveté that endures beyond all credibility. And so the paranoia and the ingenuousness of Stranger Things go naturally hand in hand. Looking around the Hawkins Fourth of July fair in one scene, taking in the fried foods and the rigged games and the "ugly decadence" of it all, Murray says, with cheerful pleasure, "It doesn't get more American than this, my friend."

What to an American Is the Fourth of July?

Posted: 04 Jul 2019 09:51 AM PDT

His impatience had thinned like the length of his letters back home to his wife, Abigail, in Boston. On June 7, 1776, John Adams finally had the opportunity to second the resolution that led to the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress. Though it was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the declaration's editors and defenders behind history's scenes piloted its approval on July 2, mostly notably Adams.

He pleased his wife, Abigail, impatient, too, as she was about declaring independence that year. But she desired more. "In the new Code of Laws … I desire you would Remember the Ladies," she wrote to him on March 31, 1776. "If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no … Representation."

"I cannot but laugh," the future second U.S. president responded on April 14. "We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where."

Who did John Adams include in "our Struggle"? Just the wealthy white men assembled with him in Philadelphia? Who was "our Struggle" truly for? Who really declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776? Who was really in the process of becoming free?

I can surmise who John's "our Struggle" did not include, based on how he described their struggle to Abigail. He had heard that "children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colleges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters," John complained to Abigail. And now women "were grown discontented." Their struggle was his problem. Their struggle was not his struggle. And his struggle was the struggle of the so-called American Patriots.

As we know all too well today, wealthy white American men did not stop rebelling when they won the American Revolution, when they gained the power to protect their declared independence. They continued to rebel to keep their power. They, "the Patriots." The rest of us have continued our rebellions because we have yet to gain the power to be free. The resisting rest of us, "the unpatriotic."

On this Fourth of July, the rest of us—and our wealthy white male allies—should be celebrating our ongoing struggles for freedom and not celebrating as if we are free. We should be celebrating our disobedience, turbulence, insolence, and discontent about inequities and injustices in all forms. We should be celebrating our form of patriotism that they call unpatriotic, our historic struggle to extend power and freedom to every single American. This is our American project.

Because power comes before freedom, not the other way around. Power creates freedom, not the other way around. We can't be free unless we have power. Freedom is not the power to make choices. Freedom is the power to create choices. And to have the power to shape policy is the power to create choices. That is why power is in the hands of the policy maker.

English power created the choices and policies that the white Founding Fathers were forced to abide by, which they rebelled against, just as American power created the choices and policies that the rest of us were forced to abide by, which we've since rebelled against. Only power gave those rich white American men freedom from the rich white British men.

Power freed them to trade with merchants and planters outside the British Empire. They could buy and sell slave-grown and manufactured products from anyone. They were no longer absolutely subjected to British capital and merchants and taxes and laws. The 13 colonies were no more, even though Abigail Adams's Ladies, my enslaved ancestors, working-class whites, and Native Americans were, in many ways, still colonized after the founding of the United States. Only power will one day give the rest of us freedom within this nation founded by white men, for white men, as those white men have said repeatedly.

Our American project is not built on the idea that we became free in 1776 or any year thereafter, but that we are fighting for freedom, oftentimes from the economic and political interests that became free on 1776. Take the African American fight for freedom that did not end when chattel slavery or Jim Crow formally ended or civil and voting rights formally began. A group of African Americans, who were no longer enslaved around Savannah, Georgia, told Lincoln-administration officials on January 12, 1865, that freedom is "placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves." They demanded land to be free.

A black Southerner, who knew all about the former Confederates and their badged day riders and hooded night riders, parodied the idea that the passage of the Fifteen Amendment in 1870 completely freed the Negro. "The ballot is the citadel of the colored man's safety, the guarantor of his liberty, the protector of his rights, the defender of his immunities and privileges, the savior of the fruits of his toil, his weapon of offense and defense, his peacemaker, his Nemesis that watches and guards over him with sleepless eye by day and by night."

Civil-rights activists were fighting for freedom with their freedom songs, freedom rides, freedom schools, and their compulsion to "carry the gospel of freedom," as Martin Luther King Jr. explained in his Letter From Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963. "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom," he wrote. "We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands."

Civil-rights activism soon transformed into the movement for black power, even for people who, like King, recognized that the Negro could not be free without power. "We've had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power," King said in a speech in 1967. But the racial problem is "a problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo."

Pundits talk of American disunity as if the divide is brothers and sisters fighting. This is a power divide. Let's not ask why the master and the slave are divided. Let's not ask why the tyrant and the egalitarian are divided. Let's not ask why the sexist and the feminist are divided. Let's not ask why the racist and the anti-racist are divided. The reasons should be self-evident. There's no healing these divides or bringing these powers together.

America is the story of powerful people struggling to keep their disproportionate amount of power from people who are struggling for the power to be free.

The power to be free should have particular resonance on this Fourth of July in the eye of Donald Trump's America. Resonance for all those struggling for the power to free those Latinx children and mothers and fathers from the terror and horror that is the southern border. Resonance for all those Americans struggling for the power to free humanity and Earth from the fatal grips of climate change, bigotry, and nuclear war. Do all those Americans really have the power to be free?

Wealthy white men certainly do. Disproportionate power and freedom. I live in Washington, D.C., but I won't be anywhere near the celebration or political rally on the National Mall. I won't be anywhere near the Lincoln Memorial on old grounds straining to hold up the weight of armored vehicles. I don't want to see that tragedy or the walking tragedy of red MAGA hats moving around covered minds. I don't want to hear verbal fireworks from President Trump, a speech that is liable to set anything within earshot that is true or loving on fire. Lincoln's statue shall overlook Lincoln's reincarnated old rival from the 1858 midterms, the pomp and circumstance of Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois on steroids. And far away, somewhere, new Lincolns, in female and male and non-gender-conforming bodies, will be readying for the task of saving the Union that Lincoln did not save from Trumpism.

To save the Union, or, really, to create a conceptual Union, we must be saved from a myth as devout and destructive as American exceptionalism: that freedom comes before power. That I became free as a white woman or as an indentured white servant when policy makers declared freedom from England and wrote the U.S. Constitution and handed me a Bill of Rights. That I became free when they amended the Constitution to abolish chattel slavery. That I became free when they allowed me to immigrate to the United States, when they allowed me to become a U.S. citizen on my own ancestral land. That I became free when they gave me civil and voting rights that have been stolen from me time and again like my Bill of Rights.

That I am free, even though policy makers refuse to guarantee my right to vote, to grant me a habitable Earth, to grant me high-quality schools and health care and air and food, to grant me fair policing, trials, competition for jobs and other opportunities, to guarantee reprisal when policies and people are unfair or lethal, are farming inequity and injustice. That I am free when politicians and businesses can easily prey on me and get away with it. That I am free when an armed white man can run up on my unarmed black body and murder me and call me a threat and get away with it. That I am free when they keep locking me up in dead-end neighborhoods and schools and jobs and prisons.

As a resistant black man in America, I've never felt like a slave. But I've never felt free. And I understand why. I have the power to resist policy, a resistance that ensures I'm not a slave. But I don't have the power to shape policy, a power that makes me free.

I have always understood why humans resisted tyrants. But I never really understood why humans fully submitted to tyrants until I studied American history, until I entered Trump's America and watched the patriots to tyranny. To believe freedom comes before power is to stifle the struggle to equalize power. It is to reinforce the power of the extremely wealthy white men who declared independence years ago. There is no more docile slave than one who believes he or she is free.

On July 3, 1776, John Adams again poured out his private thoughts in a letter to his wife. He could see what his fellow delegates set in motion. The ordered world of hierarchy he venerated would one day be no more. "The People will have unbounded Power," he wrote. "But I must submit all Hopes and Fears, to an overruling Providence."

He feared that "America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull." But he saw how the people's struggle could become his struggle. Adams helped start the echo that has carried through American time up to the protests at the southern border today. He wrote that all the calamities "will have this good Effect," inspiring "many Virtues" and correcting "many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonor, and destroy Us. The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals."

When Americans struggle for the power to be free, they are afflicting and revolutionizing and refining the United States. They are the Patriots. Patriotism on the Fourth of July is resistance.

The Most Critical Argument Democrats Will Have in 2020

Posted: 04 Jul 2019 06:52 AM PDT

The battle over health care is emerging as the most consequential policy choice facing Democrats in the 2020 presidential contest—and it's one that could play out over time to Joe Biden's advantage.

As last week's debates demonstrated, Democrats now face a stark choice: a nominee who would establish a government-funded, single-payer, national health-care system that bans private health insurance, or one who would maintain the availability of private insurance while seeking to increase coverage by enrolling more Americans in the Medicare system.

The debates produced the most pointed skirmishing on the issue yet, with Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, who are both lagging in the polls, aggressively making the case against a single-payer system that would ban almost all private insurance. But the encounters also set in motion a dynamic that virtually guarantees greater conflict among higher-ranking candidates over this issue leading into the next debates in late July.

Most candidates across the two nights of debate said they oppose a plan that would eliminate private insurance. But those who support elimination include three of the four candidates who have emerged as the race's clear top tier in the post-debate polls: Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Kamala Harris of California. The only top-tier candidate who would maintain private insurance is the former vice president.

As Biden tries to recover after a shaky performance at the first debate, that contrast provides him a clear incentive to stress his differences with the three others. Put another way, while the debates demonstrated vulnerability for Biden overall, they also showed him the most obvious way to regain his footing. His team emerged from the debate eager to sharpen his engagement with Sanders and the other candidates advocating the elimination of private insurance. "We are headed for a health-care conversation in this party," says one top Biden aide, who requested anonymity to discuss internal campaign calculations. "I think he'll be talking about it more in the coming days."

[Read: President Trump still wants to repeal Obamacare]

The stakes in this choice could be enormous. While the Democrats embraced other controversial positions during the debates—such as decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings and covering undocumented immigrants in any national health-care plan—none of those directly affects nearly as many Americans as the future structure of the health-care system overall.

No issue contributed more to the Democrats' gains in the 2018 midterm elections than the party's defense of the Affordable Care Act, particularly its provisions protecting patients with preexisting medical conditions. In exit polls during the 2018 election, nearly three-fifths of voters said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans to protect consumers with preexisting conditions. Those voters backed Democrats in House races by a crushing margin of 89 percent to 4 percent. The polling found that the issue was especially important in helping Democrats regain some ground among white women without a college degree, whose support for President Donald Trump was critical to his victories in the three Rust Belt states that effectively decided the 2016 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Democrats are optimistic that Trump has provided them a comparable opportunity again in 2020 by repeatedly pledging that he will try again to repeal the law if he's reelected.

But polls have consistently found that most Americans oppose eliminating private health insurance. In a January survey by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, just 37 percent of Americans supported a national Medicare for All plan with a ban in place. In a CNN survey released this week, only 21 percent of all Americans said they preferred a national health-care plan that would eliminate private insurance. Such results have prompted alarm from many Democrats—especially but not exclusively centrists—that running in 2020 on a platform of eliminating private insurance could neutralize the advantage Democrats have achieved on health care by defending the ACA.

"You remember what the pushback was when Barack Obama said, 'If you like your insurance, you can keep it'? And a couple million people lost their insurance because they had plans that didn't meet the standards?" Bennet asked this week on the liberal podcast Pod Save America. "Imagine a world where our offer is, 'If you like your insurance, we're going to take it away from you.' We just have got to beat Donald Trump at the end of the day here. And so we have to have an agenda that is going to appeal to the American people."

The sheer magnitude of eliminating private insurance is difficult to overstate. Fully 181 million Americans receive health coverage through their employers, according to census figures. Employer-provided coverage is the source of insurance for the vast majority of well-educated voters on whom Democrats now rely: Three-fourths of those with a two-year college degree, 87 percent of those with a four-year degree, and 90 percent of those with graduate education all receive their coverage at work. At least three-fourths of adults are covered through work in a wide array of the white-collar suburban districts that drove the Democratic recapture of the House last fall. That's one reason just two House Democrats from districts that voted for Trump in 2016 have backed the single-payer bill introduced by Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington. Only one-sixth of college-educated whites in the CNN survey said they would support a national health plan that eliminated private coverage.

Paul Starr, a sociology and public-policy professor at Princeton University who wrote a book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, on the history of the American health-care system, says those suburban dynamics present a clear red flag for Democrats proposing to eliminate private coverage. "There is a problem for the Democrats in keeping their House majority, and in winning the Senate seats [they need], if the party supports Medicare for All," says Starr, who also advised former President Bill Clinton during his push to reform the health-care system in the 1990s.

But polling sends mixed signals on how Democratic voters, as opposed to the electorate overall, feel about eliminating private insurance as part of a universal-coverage plan.

In the January Kaiser survey, a solid 57 percent majority of self-identified Democrats said they would still support a Medicare for All system if it eliminated private insurance. But in the more recent CNN survey, which was conducted entirely after last week's debates, just 30 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they preferred a "national health insurance program for all Americans" that would "completely replace private health insurance." A much larger group of Democrats and leaners, 49 percent, said they would prefer a national program that does "not completely replace private health insurance." The rest either did not want to create a national health-care system in the first place or said they did not know what system they would prefer.

In that CNN poll, eliminating private insurance did not attract plurality support from any large group within the Democratic coalition. A system that banned private insurance drew support among Democrats from just 33 percent of whites and 26 percent of nonwhites; 27 percent of men and 32 percent of women; and 37 percent of self-identified liberals and 24 percent of self-identified moderates and conservatives. Only among two groups—whites without a four-year college degree and adults younger than 45 years old—did nearly as many Democrats support eliminating private insurance as maintaining it. The idea was especially unpopular among Democrats older than 45, with just 22 percent supporting it and 52 percent opposing it.

An ABC/Washington Post survey released on Wednesday that asked the question in a different way—stressing that the current system leaves some people uninsured while the new system would provide universal coverage—found much broader support for the idea. Two-thirds of Democrats in that poll said they would still back "Medicare for all if it meant there was no private-insurance option available."

The divergence in these results suggests that opinions on the issue are still fluid and somewhat undefined. And that means the next stage of debate among Democrats could be critical in framing opinions about a government-run system, not only within the Democratic coalition but also, potentially, beyond it.

The CNN survey underscores that conclusion. It found that Sanders, Warren, and Biden—in that order—all finished closely together among voters who would eliminate private health insurance (as the first two candidates have proposed), according to results provided to me by CNN's polling director, Jennifer Agiesta. Similarly, the poll found Harris leading, followed closely by Biden and more distantly by Warren and Sanders, among the plurality of Democrats who would preserve private insurance. That suggests this issue hasn't yet shaped the race nearly as much as it could if the candidates delineate their differences more sharply.

Since his 2016 race for the nomination, Sanders has been the principal proponent of a single-payer system that would ban private insurance for all but peripheral services, such as cosmetic surgery. His camp sees his identification with single payer as a key to victory in a crowded primary field. Sanders is worrying less about building majority support in the party than about consolidating a passionate third or so of Democratic primary voters—and no issue, his camp believes, is more important in helping him do that than single payer. "For one-third of the primary electorate, it is going to be 'Screw the insurance companies, screw the pharmaceutical companies, I want to crush the whole system,'" says one top Sanders adviser, who similarly requested anonymity. "I am okay with having that debate. It is the debate we can win the nomination with."

[Read: Brace for a voter-turnout tsunami]

Sanders's challenge is that Warren and Harris, who have both endorsed a single-payer plan that eliminates private coverage, are clearly encroaching on his support with the most liberal voters. He's tumbled to fourth in some post-debate surveys, both nationally and in the kickoff state of Iowa. Meanwhile, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, while more moderate on issues such as health care, is also cutting into the support among young people that propelled the Vermont senator last time.

Biden faces a different equation. His strongest support in the race so far has come from the voters the CNN poll shows are most resistant to a single-payer plan that eliminates private insurance: older voters, nonwhites, and moderates.

Yet Biden was muted and indistinct in expressing his opposition to the Sanders approach during the first debate. The closest he came was at the end of his sole answer on health care: "I'm against any Democrat who … takes down Obamacare and any Republican who wants to get rid of it." But Biden did not connect that argument directly to the other top candidates who want to replace Obamacare with single payer. That reticence allowed Bennet to emerge at the debate as the most vivid critic of single-payer plans, though it's unclear whether that will be enough to lift him from his trailing status in the race.

Aides say Biden will likely express his differences much more pointedly leading into the next debates. Among the critiques of single payer he's likely to stress, aides say, are the immense cost; the potential disruption to the existing Medicare program; the potential for providing employers, who just received a huge tax break from Trump, another windfall by relieving them of the responsibility to provide coverage; and the importance of building on Obama's accomplishment in passing the ACA. That last argument could allow Biden to tie the health-care debate into his broader effort to frame his candidacy as an extension of Obama's legacy. Biden is likely to stress that creating a single-payer system "is also about the destruction of the ACA," says another adviser who asked for anonymity. "And that really hasn't been talked about much."

Simultaneously, Biden is likely to fill in his own broad-brush plans to expand coverage without dismantling the ACA or private health insurance. At the recent Poor People's Campaign forum in Washington, D.C., Biden indicated that he would automatically enroll into his Medicare public option, at no cost, any low-income family eligible for Medicaid in a state that has not expanded it under the ACA. He's likely to flesh out that idea more by the next debate, aides say.

Starr says that single-payer advocates have not fully grappled with the complexities involved. Total U.S. health-care spending on insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses, he notes, roughly equals the federal government's total receipts from the personal income tax (about $1.7 trillion, according to the latest figures). Even if a single-payer system cut cumulative costs by 10 or 20 percent, that would leave an enormous amount of revenue to raise through new taxes if the government assumed the burden of covering all health-care spending. And reducing those costs by shifting all health-care providers and hospitals to the reimbursement rates that Medicare offers—which are considerably lower than reimbursement rates from private insurance—could cause enormous disruption in the health-care system. "It would create havoc," Starr says.

For these practical reasons, as well as political considerations, Starr thinks it's highly likely that in the general election, any Democratic nominee will shift to a position of allowing private health insurance to coexist with an expanded public alternative (though even that, he cautions, may be more complicated than it now appears). Other Democratic policy and electoral analysts agree.

"I think that there is a majority sweet-spot position for a universal-health-care plan that relies heavily on public insurance, but doesn't eliminate private insurance," says Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress and a former chief domestic-policy adviser for Hillary Clinton. "In this case, in an election where people are concerned about electability, I do think lots of voters are anxious about anything, policy or otherwise, that can detract from defeating Donald Trump."

But there's no guarantee Democrats end up in that place. And the argument that is likely to gather momentum into the next debates may determine not only whether they do, but also how many scars they acquire along the way. "The challenge for the Democratic Party … is to go through this process and ensure that health care remains a top-tier positive issue for [the general election]," Tanden says. As the party's divide over a single-payer system widens, that may be easier said than done.

The Slow, Messy Evolution of LGBTQ Dating Shows

Posted: 04 Jul 2019 05:00 AM PDT

The MTV reality dating series Are You the One? pairs the pursuit of romance with a pretty sweet deal: If every one of the show's contestants correctly identifies their "perfect match," the group splits a grand prize of $1 million. In each of the show's first seven seasons, 20 singles (and sometimes an additional wild card or two) were put through a "rigorous matchmaking process" and chosen to live together in a massive house. They were diverse in geographic and racial background but uniformly young, brash, attractive, and heterosexual. "Welcome to the most ambitious matchmaking experiment ever attempted," then-host Ryan Devlin told the starry-eyed singles. "You're here because you all have one thing in common: You suck at relationships." Naturally, chaos always ensued.

Now the diabolical series, which premiered in 2014, has introduced a new element to the equation. Each of the 16 cast members in its eighth season is, in the show's preferred parlance, "sexually fluid." There are eight pairs of perfect matches, but the contestants (and viewers) cannot assume they'll fall along heteronormative lines. In a highlight clip that finds the cast explaining why their season—and representation of queer people on television—is so important, one member offered a straightforward assessment: "If you have a reality TV show that includes the entire spectrum of, like, racial, sexual, and gender identities, you're gonna have a really interesting show!" And he's right—the season is already among the show's best.

Prior seasons of Are You the One? had been standard, unscripted fare: entertaining but vacuous. This new installment, though, serves a multi-layered purpose. For heterosexual audiences, it's didacticism wrapped in an alcohol-soaked reality-TV bow, while for LGBTQ viewers, it's an opportunity to be seen—for better or worse—more intimately than many dating shows have previously allowed. The new season of Are You the One? premiered right at the tail end of June—Pride Month. Like the hyper-branded festivities it coincided with, the show is a fascinating tonal mashup: The episodes that have aired thus far weave lessons about sexuality and gender (and the politics of dating while queer) into every element of the show. Cast members introduce themselves with backstories that account for upbringings spent in the closet or involve being the only publicly queer kid in middle school.

In this, Are You the One? offers a refreshing divergence from many past incarnations of LBGTQ-focused dating shows. Though the series doesn't eschew boozed-up romantic drama, it never plays its participants' sexual orientations as the source of spectacle. They're people who are messy and queer—not messy because they're queer. With the exception of Netflix's quietly revelatory Dating Around, many dating shows with LGBTQ (and especially bisexual) contestants have treated them as hypersexual or prurient anomalies, as enigmas who are incapable of settling down.

Consider, for example, the reality-TV boom of the late '90s and early aughts. On Are You the One?'s own network, MTV, a surge of programming that depicted non-celebrities interacting sloppily with one another shifted the television landscape. Many of these shows weren't explicitly dating-focused (The Real World, Road Rules, Room Raiders), but several MTV and VH1 romantic-competition series attracted wide audiences. MTV's first "dating reality series," Singled Out, aired from 1995–98, but within the next decade, shows like DisMissed, Parental Control, Flavor of Love, and Next had effectively gamified love and public attention: Even if contestants didn't charm the objects of their affection, their outrageous behavior often enthralled viewers.

In an entertainment landscape that so clearly prized interpersonal chaos, the introduction of LGBTQ story lines was unsurprisingly salacious. The 2003 Bravo series Boy Meets Boy, for instance, took the straightforward premise of The Bachelor and applied an ethically dubious twist: The gay leading man, James, and his heterosexual best friend, Andra, initially had no idea that the mix of suitors competing for James's heart on national television included both gay and straight men. When it was revealed to them, midway through production, their objective shifted from a putatively romantic pursuit to guessing which men had been tricking James all along.

Boy Meets Boy presented this as an intriguing plot development, but the show replicated the kind of dangerous guesswork queer people must undertake each day—for gay men like James, incorrectly identifying another man as gay could lead to consequences far more dire than losing a game show. Disappointingly, James and Andra's selection process also included regurgitating harmful intra-community stereotypes about bisexual people. (So, too, did Playing It Straight, the 2004 Fox series that required its female lead to guess which of the men on a massive Nevada ranch were gay in order to win prize money.)

A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila, by contrast, burdened its contestants, not its lead, with the shady reveal. The 2007 MTV show began with Tila, then a popular MySpace personality and men's magazine model, meeting the 16 straight men and 16 lesbians who had been picked to live in a house and compete for her love. Prior to the end of the first episode, none of the contestants were informed of Tila's bisexuality—or the presence of contestants who didn't share their gender. That pilot, which was literally titled "Surprise! I Like Boys and Girls," introduced Tila as a confused arbiter of her own sexual orientation. "This show's the perfect experience because it's really gonna help me figure out Do I really like a guy? or Do I really like a girl?" she mused in one of the intro sequences. A more profound assessment of bisexuality never emerged, from Tila or anyone else. Indeed, the show was later mired in controversy following reports that Tila isn't actually bisexual (and she has since gone on to court attention from neo-Nazis), but it ran for two seasons and inspired a spin-off.

Now, nearly 12 years after the premiere of A Shot at Love—and several queer-centric productions, and a whole bunch of Special Gay Episodes later—Are You the One? takes a wildly different approach to depicting queer, and particularly bi/pansexual, attraction. This season has gotten more complicated than the show's prior iterations, but it's intriguing for reasons beyond the new statistical challenge. Of course, the series still operates within the framework of reality television. There are unnecessary fights, illicit makeouts, and love triangles galore. Everyone is perilously hot (and predictably thin). But as the entertainment industry has slowly shifted to offer more nuanced portrayals of queer people, Are You the One? attempts to apply that impulse to the rowdiest corner of television. As Remy, one of the participants, notes, "Some of us are not what you would want to maybe represent you, and that's fine, but we're real people, and we exist and deserve to be seen, and we deserve to express how we feel."

Are You the One? isn't the most respectability-driven model of representation, but for a series about 16 young people hanging out and hooking up in one giant house, it manages to be impressively earnest. In one early scene, for example, the show's lone trans cast member, Kai, asks Jenna, the woman he's been connecting with since the first day, if she'd be willing to join him while he takes his routine testosterone shots. Rather than feel voyeuristic or inappropriate, the moment is tender and, for many viewers, familiar. "I lived the first 20-something years of my life as a completely different person, and now I'm in a new frame of mind, I'm in a new body, I've got a brand new $10,000 chest!" Kai says in the confessional booth, opening his shirt to reveal top-surgery scars. "But I also feel like I'm new to relationships." When Jenna tells him his commitment to figuring out his relationship to gender inspires her, he blushes wildly.

The fact that Kai's later revealed to be a swaggering playboy doesn't undo the welcome surprise of his onscreen candor about physical transition, a process he describes as nonlinear. (It is, however, worth noting that the season, like many other queer productions, manages to feature a trans man but fails to include any trans women.) The show also features a relationship expert, the famed lesbian matchmaker Dr. Frankie Bashan, who steps in to advise the singles on how to avoid unhealthy romantic dynamics, especially those that can emerge within insulated communities. And each episode ends with a reference to the show's website, which lists resources for LGBTQ viewers and those looking to support them. Are You the One? remains a thrillingly tumultuous show, but for once, that chaos is driven by the queer cast members themselves.