What It’s Like to Visit an Existential Therapist

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 04:18 AM PST

If you ever find yourself sinking into the plush blue couch of Dr. Jane Prelinger, you should know that she doesn't want you to call her Dr. Prelinger. In her office, even when you're on the couch and she's facing you from her chair, looking at you through heavy eyeliner and the frame of her white-blond bangs, she insists: You're just two humans. "It's Faith and Jane," she told me when I was in that position. "Here, it's human to human."

Jane is an existential therapist. She sees a lot of different clients with a lot of different problems, but she thinks all of those problems can be reduced to the same four essential issues: death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom.

Existential therapy isn't new. Its roots go back to the existential philosophers of the 20th century, and specifically to Jean-Paul Sartre, who summed up his philosophy in 1943 when he wrote that humans are "condemned to be free." Unlike other animals, humans are conscious and aware of their own mortality—but that means they have the possibility, and responsibility, of deciding in each moment what to do and how to be.

[Read: What your therapist doesn't know]

Existentialist philosophy evolved into a methodology in the post-war years, as therapists in different corners of the globe began using its principles to inform their practice: After being freed from a concentration camp, Viktor Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning in 1946, and coined "logotherapy" as a method of creating meaning. Rollo May brought this European perspective to America in the 1950s, giving it a more optimistic flair focused on the vastness of human potential, and called it the "existential-humanistic" approach. And in 1980, Irvin Yalom defined those four "givens" of the human condition—death, meaning, isolation, and freedom—that have become the basis for the field. Today, there remain several different branches of existential therapy—but they all help clients face existential givens head on, so that they can move towards a more "authentic" and free existence.

Dr. Orah Krug, an existential therapist and the director of clinical training at the Existential-Humanistic Institute in San Francisco, gave me an example of how existential therapy can help. She had a client who was eating lunch with her daughter when a car crashed right into the room. No one was badly hurt, but for years, the client couldn't let go of her anger at the driver—until Dr. Krug helped her realize that she wasn't just angry at the driver. She was angry that she had no control to stop bad things from happening. "And here's the place where she got to that deep acknowledgement … We cannot protect ourselves from life's vicissitudes," Krug told me. "They just happen. And to pretend that we can is dangerous."

I tend to ruminate heavily—too heavily—on the existential. I worry constantly that my life isn't meaningful; that I'm not putting my limited years to good use; that I could be doing more, that I could be more. It's in between the busy moments, after I finish a task, or say goodbye to a friend, or wake before my alarm in the dark hours of the morning, that I feel it most: time slipping through my fingers.

I was immediately intrigued when I first heard about existential therapy. But when my editor suggested I actually go to an existential therapy session myself, I found I was secretly eager to see if it could really help me, as a person and not just a journalist.

When I stepped into Jane's small office, I felt like I was entering someone's home; the floor was carpeted, the lighting warm. After I sat stiffly down in Jane's rather Freudian chaise, she asked me what I'd like to talk about.

[Read: The virtues of isolation]

I told her that lately, my anxiety about time passing has been getting worse. That I'm in my twenties, and finding myself in the midst of a quarter-life crisis—trying to figure out what makes a meaningful life, debating what I should prioritize, aware that any small decision could change my entire course. That I obsessively scan Wikipedia pages to see how old my favorite writers were when they first published.

I told her how isolated those fears make me feel, even though I know my friends are grappling with similar concerns. And because I was seeing an existential therapist, after all, I let myself really dive into that. "I can't get around the fact that we're all trapped in our own heads," I said. "That I can never really access any one else's internal experience."

Jane guided the session gently. She asked clarifying but fairly typical follow-up questions: How long have you felt that way? And are you close to your mother? What about your relationships with friends? But then she'd reel me back to the big-picture questions—some of which caught me off guard, precisely because they were things I think about all the time. "How would you describe your own identity?" she asked at one point. "Not in terms of how other people see you, but in terms of who you feel you are, internally."

She laughed along with me at some of my more absurd anxieties; she even told me at times that she worried about the same things. At several points, she said, "you might not feel better after I say this," or "well, this isn't comforting, but—" and proceeded to confirm my deepest fears. No, we can't ever know anyone else's internal experience. No, there is no objective meaning, and yes, we will all fail at times to create it. Yes, you will die.

Occasionally, Jane would stop and ask what I was feeling in that moment. It was a way of sticking to the idea of "presence" that is so essential to existentialists: that you have a responsibility to show up to your life. You can't avoid it, in all its pain and beauty, by living in the past—personal histories and buried traumas matter, and they might inform the present, but it won't do to dwell on them.

And that was it; for an hour, I talked about what it was like for me to be human, and why it often feels so hard. There were no answers—Jane didn't give me any tips for processing mortality, or ways to make my life feel more meaningful. She didn't tell me I had a purpose, or that I should strengthen connections with friends, or tell my parents I loved them. After the session ended, I talked with Jane for a bit about her approach. "Part of the existential is just acknowledging: That ship has sailed," she said. "A lot of it is mourning. You mourn these realities so that you can move towards relinquishing them."

Existential therapy has slowly been gaining recognition; in 2016, there were 136 existential therapy institutions in 43 countries across six continents, and existential practitioners in at least 48 countries worldwide. Recent studies have supported the use of existential therapy for patients with advanced cancer, incarcerated individuals, and elderly people residing in nursing homes, among others; a number of meta-analyses have gathered data on their effectiveness. And when I spoke directly to existential therapists, they reported a significant rise in clients in recent years—and a notable increase in existential distress among them.

In Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl described a similar kind of culture-wide existential hunger. He called it the existential vacuum: "a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century," he wrote, resulting from the technological developments of modern society. He believed that the conveniences of the Industrial Revolution had actually given people a harmful surplus of leisure time, leaving them purposeless, sad and bored. "Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression, and addiction," he wrote, "are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them."

[Read: Americans are dying from suicide.]

Now, 72 years later, rates of suicide are higher than they've ever been before; in the U.S., suicide rates rose in all but one state (Nevada) between 1999 and 2016. Social isolation, too, is on the rise; a recent survey of 20,000 American adults found that "most Americans are considered lonely," and two fifths feel they are "isolated from others." A new poll from the American Psychiatric Association found that nearly four in ten U.S. adults are more anxious now than they were at the same time last year.

Clay Routledge, a researcher at North Dakota State University who studies existential psychology, believes Americans are experiencing a "crisis of meaninglessness." Historically, he told me, Americans have turned to organized religion—"not just because it provides this belief structure that you exist for a purpose, but also for community, social connections, and support." Now Americans are increasingly dropping religion—often for more individualized spiritual pursuits. Routledge told me this can leave people feeling empty. "In religion, people find it comforting to be part of a group that's been around for a long time. There's continuity—it'll be there after you're gone." Routledge noted that in his own research, subjects primed to think about death get most anxious when they don't see themselves as part of a bigger collective identity.

Existential despair has crept into the political realm, too. Many Americans are losing faith in political institutions; polarization is growing, and people therefore feel less hope and trust in others. And it's not just the U.S. that is feeling the existential vacuum; global threats like climate change, increasing automation, and globalization are all changes, happening rapidly, that make life feel profoundly uncertain. "I've never had more people come in bringing the world into the room than I do now," Dr. Krug told me. "And specifically talking about their anger, their powerlessness, their sense of—their world feels turned upside down."

[Read: Trust is collapsing in America]

Even today, though, the existential approach remains somewhat on the fringe of psychotherapy. There have been relatively few controlled studies comparing it to other methods—in part because existential therapists themselves are often reluctant to test it. Mick Cooper, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Roehampton, told me that in existential therapy, "there's a focus on the unique qualities of the individual … it's very critical of a more mechanistic perspective, and existential therapists are fairly wary of things like control trials." In the UK, where he practices, existential therapists have a hard time getting funded or employed within the National Health Service; the government is naturally reluctant to pay for something if they don't know that it works.

But Dr. Louis Hoffman, co-founder of the International Institute of Existential-Humanistic Psychology, sees it differently. "When you look at all the different primary components of existential therapy, there's actually very broad, robust research supporting its efficacy," he told me. Many studies have shown, for instance, that a sense of meaning contributes to psychological wellbeing, and that meaning-centered psychological interventions can help.

Hoffman feels confident that the field is going to keep growing. This May, the second World Congress of Existential Therapy will be held in Buenos Aires, gathering practitioners from all over the globe; the theme will be "Anxiety and guilt in times of change." Cooper, for his part, still doubts that existential therapy will ever be a mainstream approach. "It talks about subjects that not everyone wants to talk about, like death, meaning, limitations … it's not exactly upbeat," he told me.

Even when I was talking to Jane about those darker subjects, though, it didn't really feel heavy; it just felt good to get them out in the open. "Existentialism can be so much fun, especially when you let yourself laugh," Jane told me, chuckling. "We go through all this agony, just to die at the end!" When our time was up, Jane ended it directly and firmly. This was part of the approach, she told me—you have to be honest about things. "I don't want to deny that things end brutally. I can't collude with the idea that there's all the time in the world."

I left the office then, out the double doors and into the misty afternoon. It was cold for September, but I wanted to walk the hour home. I still had all the same existential concerns—the fear of time, the loneliness, all the myriad uncertainties. But I felt a little lighter, having had these anxieties listened to, and validated. It was a bit like coming across a line in a poem or a quote in a book that you relate to on an eerily intimate level—something of your most personal experience mirrored back to you, and you realize all at once that someone else has had the very same thought. Suddenly and certainly, if only for that moment, you are a little less alone.

Democratic Operatives Are Building Beto O’Rourke’s Campaign Without Him

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 04:11 AM PST

He's running—or they hope he is, and for now at least, they'll settle for a shot of him running in a new web video they're putting out Thursday to try to drum up support and convince Beto O'Rourke that the movement is really there, waiting for him.

Out of a shared office space in Brooklyn and through a network of phone calls and emails, political operatives behind a group called Draft Beto have raised $20,000 from 450 donors and parked the money in an account waiting for the former congressman and Senate candidate from Texas to announce a presidential campaign, probably on Facebook Live, his preferred outlet. The email list is already up to 6,000. House parties have been going on for the past few weeks.

For someone who would get into a presidential race without much buildup or preparation, that could be an important head-start.

"What we're doing," said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina state legislator and active Democrat who's now working with the group, "is essentially building a campaign to hand over to him in the event he runs."

[Read: Beto O'Rourke's National Celebrity Was His Undoing]

O'Rourke and a small circle of aides and friends have been reaching out to operatives around the country as he gauges whether there really is an appetite for a presidential run that six months ago would have seemed like a ridiculous joke and now seems like he could enter as a frontrunner. Meetings are being brokered, connections being made for people to have what-if conversations about how it might work.

"I think Beto's really having a hard time making a decision, and he's surprised at how hard it is," said Garry Mauro, the last Democrat to be elected statewide in Texas (in 1994, as land commissioner), and someone who's been in touch with O'Rourke recently.

There has been no official contact, but Mauro said O'Rourke is clearly registering how excited people remain about him, and he and his team are aware of Draft Beto. "I don't think for one second that the Draft Beto movement is going unnoticed and doesn't have impact. Of course it does, how could it not?"

[Read: What Beto Won]

O'Rourke didn't respond to a phone call or questions sent by text about what he makes of Draft Beto, and whether the group's existence is indeed informing his decision. He's on a road trip, by himself, eating blackberry cobbler and crashing in motels, having conversations, and then posting Bukowski-style essays about what he sees.

"Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk. My last day of work was January 2nd," he wrote on Medium on Wednesday. "It's been more than twenty years since I was last not working. Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what's going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don't know and I'm not known, it'll clear my head, reset, I'll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I've been stuck in."

For someone who became a national sensation speaking off-the-cuff and from the heart, in the last two months, O'Rourke has become an enigma. According to several people he's been in contact with, he'll write long, philosophical text messages to people he knows well, but others who reach out pushing him to run get elusive text messages that are non-committal but friendly and make reference to  decisions that lie ahead.

[Read: Beto O'Rourke and the New Democratic Purity Test]

That's more contact than Nate Lerner ever had with O'Rourke—and he isn't talking to him these days. Lerner came up with the concept for Draft Beto in late November, feeling like O'Rourke is the only solution to the country's disenchantment with politics right now. He was an Obama 2012 reelection campaign field organizer in Pennsylvania and now runs the Build The Wave PAC, which raises money and support for candidates by sending out mass text messages. He started reaching out to people he knew about Draft Beto, building a network of support and attention. It's gotten big enough already that many people mistake Draft Beto for being part of O'Rourke's operation directly and misinterpret every utterance from the group as though it represents a window into his thinking.

That, Lerner says, is the point.

"It's more to show him that that energy's there, and that it's real, and also to keep him in the news, and to keep his supporters engaged, provide an outlet for him," Lerner said.

This week, Draft Beto branched out with an expanded list of experienced operatives around the country, and more are expected to be named in the coming days. With a big Democratic field taking shape for the 2020 election, experienced operatives are in high demand. It's notable that so many are willing to sign on with Draft Beto when they could be taking paying jobs with candidates who are actually running.

[Read: Beto's Loss Was a Blessing in Disguise for Democrats]

"We have stepped out on a limb of our own volition, and people have assumed that we may be crazy, because there are people who are actively putting together teams, and we went with the guy who is not," said Brown, the former South Carolina state legislator, who was brought into Draft Beto by his friend Tyler Jones, an operative in the state who just ran Joe Cunningham's campaign to flip a House seat blue in November. Jones himself was brought into the group after Lerner reached out to him.

Brown said that since he signed on with Draft Beto, he's been flooded with messages on LinkedIn and so many emails that he's turned off the notifications on his phone. County parties have invited them to speak on O'Rourke's behalf, as have chapters of College Democrats in the early primary states. Brown said he's also had success convincing some political players and donors to hold off in picking a candidate until they see if O'Rourke runs. "What we're doing is making sure he doesn't lose out on anybody while he takes his time," Brown said.

But Draft Beto wants to attract more operatives, and Lerner is hoping that the video it plans to post on Thursday morning will help the cause go viral. The video is set to the synth keyboard intro to The Who's Baba O'Riley, which O'Rourke famously rocked out to in a campaign video shot while he waited in line at a Whataburger drive-thru in Texas after one of his Senate debates with Ted Cruz.

The new video features clips of him decrying what's become of American politics interspersed with shots of President Donald Trump and the Trump rogues gallery of Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Cohen and more. It then shifts to shots of people all over television talking about him before segueing to a gallery  of old photographs of him in his old punk band or with his children. There's a clip of him saying, "We're going to shine through at this moment of division," and it ends with a collection of inspirational moments from last year's Senate campaign, and his concession speech in November, promising that "we will see you out there, down the road."

Since losing, O'Rourke has waffled on his campaign trail pledge that he wouldn't run for president in 2020, and has made almost all his public statements since to Facebook Live chats, including one last week after Trump's national television address on the government shutdown and another from the chair of his dental hygienist.

Draft Beto has been casting about without him. To fit with his no PAC money rule from the Senate campaign, they worked with a campaign finance lawyer to establish an account which holds the money they've raised. Those funds would be transferred to him within 10 days of him announcing as a candidate.

Draft Beto's organizers don't have access to any of the money themselves for operating costs or salaries, wary that people might otherwise accuse them of trying to make money off his name. Nor do they have talking points from him or his staff. But they have coalesced around his most important public statements and provide them to anyone who reaches out and asks about hosting house parties to drum up support. They also provide tips about how to get coverage in the local press, and how attendees should make sure to take pictures to help fan the flames on social media.

"We're not going to be able to provide a ton of guidance, but we're going to be able to get it off the ground," Lerner said.

Michael Trujillo, a Los Angeles-based political consultant who signed on this week, first heard about Draft Beto from a friend who came to his birthday party recently. The friend was Michael Soneff, who'd just signed on as the Nevada and California director for Draft Beto—and who a few weeks later called Trujillo and asked him to sign up.

Now Trujillo is spending a little time each day trying to make more connections. He reached out to Mandate Media, a firm that worked with O'Rourke when he was in the House, to see if they'd sign up to work for Draft Beto. He put in a call to the former chair of the Latino caucus in California, seeing about support.

After working on Hillary Clinton's campaigns, Trujillo says O'Rourke's freshness has pulled him in—and that anyway he hasn't been impressed with any of the other candidates running. He hopes this translates to a job on a campaign, if there is one.  

"This is our way of raising our hands and saying, 'If you're ready to jump in, here we are,'" Trujillo said.

"Draft" movements don't have a great track record. For the 2004 election, retired Army General Wesley Clark sparked several websites and small groups to urge him into the race, comparing him to Dwight Eisenhower and raising money and building email lists for him. After about six months, Clark jumped into the race, but his campaign only lasted about six months.

In 2015, a more experienced group of operatives and activists at the group MoveOn.org launched Run Warren Run, trying to convince Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to enter the primaries.  She never bit, and eventually they gave up, announcing that though "we've illustrated the huge opening that exists for her, we're resting our case and will stop actively trying to draft her into the race."

Meanwhile, a few young, inexperienced campaign workers put together a group called Draft Biden to try to convince the then-vice president to run. They raised over a hundred thousand dollars, commissioned meme-ready Obama-style graphics of Biden driving a car, and became a point of contact for those close to Biden, whom they hoped would convince him to run. As it turned out, the people who actually worked on planning a potential Biden campaign didn't even know who the organizers were.

The people working on Draft Beto say they're hoping to be more like Ready for Hillary, the group founded in January 2013 which built up a massive email list and other resources. It was eventually absorbed by her campaign. But that was with much more time than O'Rourke has right now to decide if he's going to pull the trigger.

Adam Parkhomenko, the Ready for Hillary founder, said he'd advise the Draft Beto team to raise money for their own operations to pay for signs, stickers and other materials that they can start handing out at events, at least until O'Rourke has a campaign operation that can produce those. "They could be filling a vacuum at all these events," Parkhomenko said.

Based on his own experiences after Ready for Hillary folded, Parkhomenko also recommended that Draft Beto remain active as a separate entity, even if some of the people involved move over to campaign staff. "The vast majority of them can be most useful to him on the outside," Parkhomenko said.

Lerner said he and others involved with Draft Beto have been discussing three options for what to do if O'Rourke does launch a campaign: fold, redirect to another cause, or function as a supportive PAC so long as an official campaign didn't feel that would hurt his brand.

Lerner envisioned a scenario in which O'Rourke waits a few months to decide and then enters as a kind of white knight. That would spark excitement, of course, but would also come at the cost of not putting together an operation while all the other candidates get even more of a head start than they have already.

"Hopefully we would have established the building blocks for that kind of approach," Lerner said, then paused for a moment. "I'd love for him to announce in February as well."

No, High Taxes Will Not Suffocate American Innovation

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested this month that the United States should tax income over $10 million by 70 percent, it galvanized something unusual: a broad and substantive national conversation about the design and purpose of federal tax policy.

No, I'm just kidding. It kicked off a lot of screaming about socialism, especially on cable news.

From the cacophony of communist callouts, however, a subtler argument emerged. Entrepreneurs and center-right economists insisted that raising taxes dramatically on the rich would undo America's ability to spark innovation and attract entrepreneurs who want to start companies and solve big problems.

In the abstract, their case is clear. "If income taxes are high enough, start-ups stop happening," said Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, the country's preeminent start-up incubator.

[Read: Is the U.S. due for radically raising taxes for the rich?]

That perspective is backed by some research. A 2018 paper by Charles I. Jones at Stanford University Graduate School of Business found that raising the top marginal tax rate to 75 percent would "reduce innovation and lower GDP per person in the long run by about 6 percent." Another recent paper found that the introduction of the income tax in 1909 suffocated innovation in the next 100 years. The conservative economists L. Ron Hubbard and Douglas Holtz-Eakin each published papers earlier this century arguing that raising taxes on the rich "discourages entry into self-employment" and makes self-employed people less likely to hire workers.

Although it seems doubtful that an individual would choose not to start a company for fear of tax consequences should she become a millionaire—the horror—let's give this argument its fairest shake. If high incomes are the prize that motivates entrepreneurs, high marginal rates weaken the prize and make it harder for new firms to scale up. Plus, reducing entrepreneurship in one generation might deplete the supply of start-up advisers and investors for the next.

Now let's lift our eyes from theory and look out into the real world. Does it reflect conservative logic?

I don't think so.

  • The two most important hubs of innovation in the United States are the Bay Area and New York City. But according to the Tax Foundation, California and New York have the 48th and the 49th most favorable business-tax climates in the country. Sky-high tax rates in Mountain View and Manhattan haven't blunted their advantage.
  • Average tax rates on most income groups have been declining since the early 1980s, which you'd think would supercharge start-ups, but the official entrepreneurship rate in the United States has been falling over that entire period.
  • The United States has lower marginal tax rates on income than much of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development does, but the U.S. entrepreneurship rate is lower than those of many Western and Central European countries.
  • When the top marginal tax rates were about 90 percent in the 1950s and '60s, the U.S. productivity rate was higher, men landed on the moon, and scientists invented the internet, satellites, and the transistor, planting the seeds of the entire computer revolution that now defines innovation.

These anecdotes don't prove anything magical about high marginal rates, or low marginal rates. Rather, they suggest that if taxes matter, other stuff matters more—such as culture, local professional networks, and the state of scientific research.

As John Fernald, an economist at the Federal Reserve, once told me, economists can't rule out the possibility that productivity has slowed down recently because "we picked all the low-hanging fruit from the information-technology wave." If capitalist entrepreneurs want to pluck new fruits of innovation, he said, somebody needs to plant new seeds of scientific research.

[Read: The golden age of rich people not paying their taxes]

The U.S. government used to do this well. Fracking, which has made the United States the world's energy leader, came from federally funded research into drilling technology. The latest surge in cancer drugs came from the War on Cancer, announced in 1971. But the U.S. government doesn't plant seeds like it used to. Federal research spending has fallen from nearly 12 percent of the budget in the 1960s to 4 percent today. If economists want to jump-start innovation in new frontiers, maybe they should obsess more about federal research spending than about a tax rate that would kick in at $10,000,000.01.

Another reason to worry less about marginal rates is that taxes collected from rich people are not boarded onto a spaceship and blasted at the sun. They help to support a range of services and benefits, some of which can make innovation more likely. Conversely, a lack of benefits can depress innovation.

In fact, one reason for America's relatively low rate of start-ups may be that, since most adults get health care from their employer, they're tethered to their day job. Some economists call this "entrepreneurship lock." Universal public insurance might unlock ideas that are sequestered by the employer-sponsored health-care model. Relatedly, young people might not try to start a company because they are afraid of failure in a country without much of a social safety net. In one recent survey, more than 40 percent of 25-to-34-year-old Americans said a fear of failure kept them from starting a company in 2014—almost twice the number who said so in 2001. Higher taxes would likely help, not hurt, this cohort, if they were spent on, say, lowering the cost of public colleges, which would in turn reduce student debt and make it easier for middle-class graduates to take a risk on a new idea.

Entrepreneurs aren't just born tough; they're born lucky. The majority of successful young founders come from affluent white families, and they often piggyback on the professional connections and business expertise of their parents. Taxing the rich and distributing their income would do nothing to change the networks or tutelage of rich families, but it would reduce precarity among middle- and lower-class families, thus helping nonaffluent children become founders without doing much to punish their richer peers.

If Ocasio-Cortez wanted to destroy the American culture of innovation, she wouldn't propose a barely applicable marginal tax rate, which exists within a larger tax code, which itself exists within a larger fiscal policy. Instead, she would reduce research funding, protect employer-sponsored insurance to keep tomorrow's founders locked inside today's cubicles, and increase student debt to make youth entrepreneurship more precarious. Oh, wait.

James Blake’s Ether Becomes Mush

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

"My brother and my sister don't speak to me, but I don't blame them," James Blake sang on loop for 2011's "I Never Learnt to Share," a defining moment in one of the 21st century's most improbably important music careers. It was an evocative bit of poetry (what did you do at playtime, James Blake?) that, he said, was mostly selected for how it sounded rather than what it said. As keyboards wiggled, wheezed, and died around his lonesome whimper, the listener could guess at what it meant for Blake, an only child, to sing about siblings. Or they could just enjoy it as a mantra, dissolving the pesky idea of meaning itself.

Blake has become an influencer mostly through pure sound. The moody electronic styles of the U.K. legend—the hollow thwacks of garage, the algorithmic swarms of IDM, the black-hole heaviness of dubstep, the hiss and friction of grime—found new audiences when Blake lovingly fused them with hangdog falsetto, churchy harmonics, and structures that were not quite dance and not quite pop, but rather sculptural. The computer-generated ooziness of so much mainstream production now owes something to the artist, and superstars keep calling on him for tasteful helpings of digital wear and tear. Beyoncé, for example, took a sonic sketch by Blake and charged it with political and personal subtext on Lemonade: exactly what his music does not require on its own.

But on his fourth album, Assume Form, the 30-year-old Blake has lots to say. A few years into a relationship with the actress Jameela Jamil, Blake wants the world to know that he's no "sad boy." He also seems to want to reclaim his influence with some big hits of his own. As he sings on the title track, he's leaving "the ether" so as to be more direct, warmer. It's a sometimes awe-inspiring but often awkward transformation, that of a one-time Pinocchio who's super-duper eager to inform strangers that he's a real kid. Late in the album comes one tellingly clumsy line, delivered with Coldplay-ian intonations, plainly thirsty to be paired with Instagram sunsets: "Drop a pin on the mood that you're in."

As a headphones experience, Assume Form does deliver the expected shivers. Waterfalling pianos on the opener create an immersion-tank floating sensation. The centerpiece celebration of domestic coexistence that is "Can't Believe the Way We Flow" surfs waves of doo-wop vocals: a lovely idea, executed well. Two team-ups with the hip-hop producer Metro Boomin—especially the one featuring the rapper Travis Scott—make familiar templates feel newly sleek and strange. André 3000's virtuosically neurotic verse on "Where's the Catch?" nestles amid catchy chaos. On "Are You In Love?" Blake's aria-like performance gets clobbered eventually by Hitchcock orchestration, in an ugly-beautiful kind of way.

But the transporting sounds jostle against the voice of their newly earthbound creator. A track like "Into the Red," which appears to be about how nice it is that Blake's girlfriend is rich like him ("She's no trader for a joint account," he sings) is typical in that it's stuck between over-specificity and artsy code. It doesn't help that folksy plinking adds to the sense of twee. Blake's no doubt just describing his lovely life, but there's something wedding toast–like about other lyrics praising a partner who's akin to "his imaginary friend," to whom he coos, "Let's go home and talk shit about everyone." It's relatable, but partly because everyone knows a couple who flaunts their cuddling a little too much.

Criticizing such lyrics feels rude, I'll admit, because they explicitly describe someone who's avoided intimacy and vulnerability for too long. Blake does land some killer moments by mining his fear of commitment, as when on "Don't Miss It" a litany of selfish thoughts culminates in this: "I could leave in the middle of the night." The music drops out, and his voice is a slither. The temptation to bail when things are good is Blake's great vice, and André 3000's verse on "Where's the Catch?" is the album's definitive treatment of it, describing an alchemist who turns silver to aluminum to dirt. Blake's own mewlings don't get any more vivid than that.

Still, Blake is such a skilled technician that even his soggiest mash notes can't be entirely dismissed. "Power On," an anthem that could compete for radio space with the likes of Khalid or, yes, Coldplay, features a big weird synth line that cuts the cloyingness. "Don't Miss It" ends with an eerie update on the old Radiohead trick of making it seem as though the singer's getting sucked into the sky. The fact that "Can't Believe the Way We Flow" will definitely end up in an AI-scripted Netflix rom-com doesn't mean its multilayered harmonies aren't glorious. It's tempting to lay Assume Form's flaws on the fact that Blake's muse is no longer solitude, but really the risk he's taken is in over-explaining his art. Love isn't unlike loneliness in this way: more aptly felt than described.

Impeach Donald Trump

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 09:31 PM PST

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump stood on the steps of the Capitol, raised his right hand, and solemnly swore to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He has not kept that promise.

Instead, he has mounted a concerted challenge to the separation of powers, to the rule of law, and to the civil liberties enshrined in our founding documents. He has purposefully inflamed America's divisions. He has set himself against the American idea, the principle that all of us—of every race, gender, and creed—are created equal.

[Impeachment: An argument]

This is not a partisan judgment. Many of the president's fiercest critics have emerged from within his own party. Even officials and observers who support his policies are appalled by his pronouncements, and those who have the most firsthand experience of governance are also the most alarmed by how Trump is governing.

"The damage inflicted by President Trump's naïveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate," the late senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain lamented last summer. "The president has not risen to the mantle of the office," the GOP's other recent nominee, the former governor and now senator Mitt Romney, wrote in January.

The oath of office is a president's promise to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any faction within it. Trump displays no evidence that he understands these obligations. To the contrary, he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them. This has encouraged a wide array of actors, domestic and foreign, to seek to influence his decisions by funneling cash to properties such as Mar-a-Lago (the "Winter White House," as Trump has branded it) and his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Courts are now considering whether some of those payments violate the Constitution.

More troubling still, Trump has demanded that public officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the public. On his first full day in office, he ordered his press secretary to lie about the size of his inaugural crowd. He never forgave his first attorney general for failing to shut down investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and ultimately forced his resignation. "I need loyalty. I expect loyalty," Trump told his first FBI director, and then fired him when he refused to pledge it.

Trump has evinced little respect for the rule of law, attempting to have the Department of Justice launch criminal probes into his critics and political adversaries. He has repeatedly attacked both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His efforts to mislead, impede, and shut down Mueller's investigation have now led the special counsel to consider whether the president obstructed justice.

As for the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, Trump has repeatedly trampled upon them. He pledged to ban entry to the United States on the basis of religion, and did his best to follow through. He has attacked the press as the "enemy of the people" and barred critical outlets and reporters from attending his events. He has assailed black protesters. He has called for his critics in private industry to be fired from their jobs. He has falsely alleged that America's electoral system is subject to massive fraud, impugning election results with which he disagrees as irredeemably tainted. Elected officials of both parties have repeatedly condemned such statements, which has only spurred the president to repeat them.

These actions are, in sum, an attack on the very foundations of America's constitutional democracy.

The electorate passes judgment on its presidents and their shortcomings every four years. But the Framers were concerned that a president could abuse his authority in ways that would undermine the democratic process and that could not wait to be addressed. So they created a mechanism for considering whether a president is subverting the rule of law or pursuing his own self-interest at the expense of the general welfare—in short, whether his continued tenure in office poses a threat to the republic. This mechanism is impeachment.

Trump's actions during his first two years in office clearly meet, and exceed, the criteria to trigger this fail-safe. But the United States has grown wary of impeachment. The history of its application is widely misunderstood, leading Americans to mistake it for a dangerous threat to the constitutional order.

That is precisely backwards. It is absurd to suggest that the Constitution would delineate a mechanism too potent to ever actually be employed. Impeachment, in fact, is a vital protection against the dangers a president like Trump poses. And, crucially, many of its benefits—to the political health of the country, to the stability of the constitutional system—accrue irrespective of its ultimate result. Impeachment is a process, not an outcome, a rule-bound procedure for investigating a president, considering evidence, formulating charges, and deciding whether to continue on to trial.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

With a newly seated Democratic majority, the House of Representatives can no longer dodge its constitutional duty. It must immediately open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and bring the debate out of the court of public opinion and into Congress, where it belongs.

Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections. Despite this clear rebuke of Trump—and despite all that is publicly known about his offenses—party elders remain reluctant to impeach him. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has argued that it's too early to talk about impeachment. Many Democrats avoided discussing the idea on the campaign trail, preferring to focus on health care. When, on the first day of the 116th Congress, a freshman representative declared her intent to impeach Trump and punctuated her comments with an obscenity, she was chastised by members of the old guard—not just for how she raised the issue, but for raising it at all.

In no small part, this trepidation is due to the fact that the last effort to remove an American president from office ended in political fiasco. When the House impeached Bill Clinton, in 1998, his popularity soared; in the Senate, even some Republicans voted against convicting him of the charges.

Pelosi and her antediluvian leadership team served in Congress during those fights two decades ago, and they seem determined not to repeat their rivals' mistakes. Polling has shown significant support for impeachment over the course of Trump's tenure, but the most favorable polls still indicate that it lacks majority support. To move against Trump now, Democrats seem to believe, would only strengthen the president's hand. Better to wait for public opinion to turn decisively against him and then use impeachment to ratify that view. This is the received wisdom on impeachment, the overlearned lesson of the Clinton years: House Republicans got out ahead of public opinion, and turned a president beset by scandal into a sympathetic figure.

Instead, Democrats intend to be a thorn in Trump's side. House committees will conduct hearings into a wide range of issues, calling administration officials to testify under oath. They will issue subpoenas and demand documents, emails, and other information. The chair of the Ways and Means Committee has the power to request Trump's elusive tax returns from the IRS and, with the House's approval, make them public.

Other institutions are already acting as brakes on the Trump presidency. To the president's vocal frustration, federal judges have repeatedly enjoined his executive orders. Robert Mueller's investigation has brought convictions of, or plea deals from, key figures in his campaign as well as his administration. Some Democrats are clearly hoping that if they stall for long enough, Mueller will deliver them from Trump, obviating the need to act themselves.

But Congress can't outsource its responsibilities to federal prosecutors. No one knows when Mueller's report will arrive, what form it will take, or what it will say. Even if Mueller alleges criminal misconduct on the part of the president, under Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president cannot be indicted. Nor will the host of congressional hearings fulfill that branch's obligations. The view they will offer of his conduct will be both limited and scattershot, focused on discrete acts. Only by authorizing a dedicated impeachment inquiry can the House begin to assemble disparate allegations into a coherent picture, forcing lawmakers to consider both whether specific charges are true and whether the president's abuses of his power justify his removal.

Waiting also presents dangers. With every passing day, Trump further undermines our national commitment to America's ideals. And impeachment is a long process. Typically, the House first votes to open an investigation—the hearings would likely take months—then votes again to present charges to the Senate. By delaying the start of the process, in the hope that even clearer evidence will be produced by Mueller or some other source, lawmakers are delaying its eventual conclusion. Better to forge ahead, weighing what is already known and incorporating additional material as it becomes available.

Critics of impeachment insist that it would diminish the presidency, creating an executive who serves at the sufferance of Congress. But defenders of executive prerogatives should be the first to recognize that the presidency has more to gain than to lose from Trump's impeachment. After a century in which the office accumulated awesome power, Trump has done more to weaken executive authority than any recent president. The judiciary now regards Trump's orders with a jaundiced eye, creating precedents that will constrain his successors. His own political appointees boast to reporters, or brag in anonymous op-eds, that they routinely work to counter his policies. Congress is contemplating actions on trade and defense that will hem in the president. His opponents repeatedly aim at the man but hit the office.

Democrats' fear—that impeachment will backfire on them—is likewise unfounded. The mistake Republicans made in impeaching Bill Clinton wasn't a matter of timing. They identified real and troubling misconduct—then applied the wrong remedy to fix it. Clinton's acts disgraced the presidency, and his lies under oath and efforts to obstruct the investigation may well have been crimes. The question that determines whether an act is impeachable, though, is whether it endangers American democracy. As a House Judiciary Committee staff report put it in 1974, in the midst of the Watergate investigation: "The purpose of impeachment is not personal punishment; its function is primarily to maintain constitutional government." Impeachable offenses, it found, included "undermining the integrity of office, disregard of constitutional duties and oath of office, arrogation of power, abuse of the governmental process, adverse impact on the system of government."

Trump's bipartisan critics are not merely arguing that he has lied or dishonored the presidency. The most serious allegations against him ultimately rest on the charge that he is attacking the bedrock of American democracy. That is the situation impeachment was devised to address.

Video: It's Time to Impeach Trump

After the House impeaches a president, the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to remove him from office. Opponents of impeachment point out that, despite the greater severity of the prospective charges against Trump, there is little reason to believe the Senate is more likely to remove him than it was to remove Clinton. Indeed, the Senate's Republican majority has shown little will to break with the president—though that may change. The process of impeachment itself is likely to shift public opinion, both by highlighting what's already known and by bringing new evidence to light. If Trump's support among Republican voters erodes, his support in the Senate may do the same. One lesson of Richard Nixon's impeachment is that when legislators conclude a presidency is doomed, they can switch allegiances in the blink of an eye.

But this sort of vote-counting, in any case, misunderstands the point of impeachment. The question of whether impeachment is justified should not be confused with the question of whether it is likely to succeed in removing a president from office. The country will benefit greatly regardless of how the Senate ultimately votes. Even if the impeachment of Donald Trump fails to produce a conviction in the Senate, it can safeguard the constitutional order from a president who seeks to undermine it. The protections of the process alone are formidable. They come in five distinct forms.

The first is that once an impeachment inquiry begins, the president loses control of the public conversation. Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton each discovered this, much to their chagrin. Johnson, the irascible Tennessee Democrat who succeeded to the presidency in 1865 upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, quickly found himself at odds with the Republican Congress. He shattered precedents by delivering a series of inflammatory addresses that dominated the headlines and forced his opponents into a reactive posture. The launching of impeachment inquiries changed that. Day after day, Congress held hearings. Day after day, newspapers splashed the proceedings across their front pages. Instead of focusing on Johnson's fearmongering, the press turned its attention to the president's missteps, to the infighting within his administration, and to all the things that congressional investigators believed he had done wrong.

It isn't just the coverage that changes. When presidents face the prospect of impeachment, they tend to discover a previously unsuspected capacity for restraint and compromise, at least in public. They know that their words can be used against them, so they fume in private. Johnson's calls for the hanging of his political opponents yielded quickly to promises to defer to their judgment on the key questions of the day. Nixon raged to his aides, but tried to show a different face to the country. "Dignity, command, faith, head high, no fear, build a new spirit," he told himself. Clinton sent bare-knuckled proxies to the television-news shows, but he and his staff chose their own words carefully.

Trump is easily the most pugilistic president since Johnson; he's never going to behave with decorous restraint. But if impeachment proceedings begin, his staff will surely redouble its efforts to curtail his tweeting, his lawyers will counsel silence, and his allies on Capitol Hill will beg for whatever civility he can muster. His ability to sidestep scandal by changing the subject—perhaps his greatest political skill—will diminish.

As Trump fights for his political survival, that struggle will overwhelm other concerns. This is the second benefit of impeachment: It paralyzes a wayward president's ability to advance the undemocratic elements of his agenda. Some of Trump's policies are popular, and others are widely reviled. Some of his challenges to settled orthodoxies were long overdue, and others have proved ill-advised. These are ordinary features of our politics and are best dealt with through ordinary electoral processes. It is, rather, the extraordinary elements of Trump's presidency that merit the use of impeachment to forestall their success: his subversion of the rule of law, attacks on constitutional liberties, and advancement of his own interests at the public's expense.

The Mueller probe as well as hearings convened by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have already hobbled the Trump administration to some degree. It will face even more scrutiny from a Democratic House. White House aides will have to hire personal lawyers; senior officials will spend their afternoons preparing testimony. But impeachment would raise the scrutiny to an entirely different level.

In part, this is because of the enormous amount of attention impeachment proceedings garner. But mostly, the scrutiny stems from the stakes of the process. The most a president generally has to fear from congressional hearings is embarrassment; there is always an aide to take the fall. Impeachment puts his own job on the line, and demands every hour of his day. The rarest commodity in any White House is time, that of the president and his top advisers. When it's spent watching live hearings or meeting with lawyers, the administration's agenda suffers. This is the irony of congressional leaders' counseling patience, urging members to simply wait Trump out and use the levers of legislative power instead of moving ahead with impeachment. There may be no more effective way to run out the clock on an administration than to tie it up with impeachment hearings.

Jackson, Nixon, Clinton
As Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton each discovered, once an impeachment inquiry begins, the president loses control of the public conversation. (Everett Historical; Charles Tasnadi; J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

But the advantages of impeachment are not merely tactical. The third benefit is its utility as a tool of discovery and discernment. At the moment, it is often hard to tell the difference between wild-eyed conspiracy theories and straight narrations of the day's news. Some of what is alleged about Trump is plainly false; much of it might be true, but lacks supporting evidence; and many of the best-documented claims are quickly forgotten, lost in the din of fresh allegations. This is what passes for due process in the court of public opinion.

The problem is not new. When Congress first opened the Johnson impeachment hearings, for instance, the committee spent two months chasing rumor and innuendo. It heard allegations that Johnson had sent a secret letter to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis; that he had associated with a "disreputable woman" and, through her, sold pardons; that he had transferred ownership of confiscated railroads as political favors; even that he had conspired with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The congressman who made that last claim was forced to admit to the committee pursuing impeachment that what he possessed "was not that kind of evidence which would satisfy the great mass of men"—he had simply based the accusation on his belief that every vice president who succeeds to the highest office murders his predecessor.

There was public value, though, in these investigations. The charges had already been leveled; they were circulating and shaping public opinion. Spread by a highly polarized, partisan press, they could not be dispelled or disproved. But once Congress initiated the process of impeachment, the charges had to be substantiated. And that meant taking them from the realm of rhetoric into the province of fact. Many of the claims against Johnson failed to survive the journey. Those that did eventually helped form the basis for his impeachment. Separating them out was crucial.

The process of impeachment can also surface evidence. The House Judiciary Committee began its impeachment hearings against Nixon in October 1973, well before the president's complicity in the Watergate cover-up was clear. In April 1974, as part of those hearings, the Judiciary Committee subpoenaed 42 White House tapes. In response, Nixon released transcripts of the tapes that were so obviously expurgated that a district judge approved a subpoena from the special prosecutor for the tapes themselves. That demand, in turn, eventually produced the so-called smoking-gun tape, a recording of Nixon authorizing the CIA to shut down the FBI's investigation into Watergate. The evidence that drove Nixon from office thus emerged as a consequence of the impeachment hearings; it did not spark them. The only way for the House to find out what Trump has actually done, and whether his conduct warrants removal, is to start asking.

That is not to say that impeachment hearings against Trump would be sober and orderly. The Clinton hearings were something of a circus, and the past two years on Capitol Hill suggest that any Trump hearings will be far worse. The president's stalwart defenders are already attacking the integrity of potential witnesses and airing their own conspiracy theories; an attempt to smear Mueller with sexual-misconduct claims collapsed spectacularly in October. His accusers, meanwhile, hurl epithets and invective. In Congress, Trump's most committed detractors might be tempted to follow the bad example of the Clinton impeachment, when, instead of conducting extensive hearings to weigh potential charges, House Republicans short-circuited the process—taking the independent counsel's conclusions, rushing them to the floor, and voting to impeach in a lame-duck session. Trump's opponents need to put their faith in the process, empowering a committee to consider specific charges, weigh the available evidence, and decide whether to proceed.

Hosting that debate in Congress yields a fourth benefit: defusing the potential for an explosion of political violence. This is a rationale for impeachment first offered at the Constitutional Convention, in 1787. "What was the practice before this in cases where the chief Magistrate rendered himself obnoxious?" Benjamin Franklin asked his fellow delegates. "Why, recourse was had to assassination in wch. he was not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character." A system without a mechanism for removing the chief executive, he argued, offered an invitation to violence. Just as the courts took the impulse toward vigilante justice and safely channeled it into the protections of the legal system, impeachment took the impulse toward political violence and safely channeled it into Congress.

Nixon's presidency was marked by an upsurge in political terrorism. In just its first 16 months, 4,330 bombings claimed 43 lives. As the Vietnam War wound down and the militant left began to lose its salience, it made opposition to the president its new rallying cry. "Impeach Nixon and jail him for his major crimes," the Weather Underground demanded in its manifesto, Prairie Fire, in July 1974. "Nixon merits the people's justice." But that seemingly radical demand, intended to expose the inadequacy of the regular constitutional order, ironically proved the opposite point. By the end of the month, the House Judiciary Committee had approved three articles of impeachment; in early August, Nixon resigned. The ship of state, it turned out, had the capacity to right itself. The Weather Underground continued its slide into irrelevance, and political violence eventually receded.

The current moment is different, of course. Today, the left is again radicalizing, but the overwhelming majority of political violence is committed by the far right, albeit on a considerably smaller scale than in the Nixon era. Trump himself has warned that "the people would revolt" if he were impeached, a warning that echoes earlier eras. When Congress debated impeachment in 1868, some likewise predicted that it would provoke Andrew Johnson's most ardent supporters to violence. "We are evidently on the eve of a revolution that may, should an appeal be taken to arms, be more bloody than that inaugurated by the firing on Fort Sumter," warned The Boston Post.

The predictions were wrong then, as Trump's are likely wrong now. The public understood that once the impeachment process began, the real action would take place in Congress, and not in the streets. Johnson knew that inciting his supporters to violence would erode congressional support just when he needed it most. That seems the most probable outcome today as well. If impeached, Trump would lose the luxury of venting his resentments before friendly crowds, stirring their anger. His audience, by political necessity, would become a few dozen senators in Washington.

And what if the Senate does not convict Trump? The fifth benefit of impeachment is that, even when it fails to remove a president, it severely damages his political prospects. Johnson, abandoned by Republicans and rejected by Democrats, did not run for a second term. Nixon resigned, and Gerald Ford, his successor, lost his bid for reelection. Clinton weathered the process and finished out his second term, but despite his personal popularity, he left an electorate hungering for change. "Many, including Al Gore, think that the impeachment cost Gore the election," Paul Rosenzweig, a former senior member of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's team, told me. "So it has consequences and resonates outside the narrow four corners of impeachment." If Congress were to impeach Trump, whatever short-term surge he might enjoy as supporters rallied to his defense, his long-term political fate would likely be sealed.

In these five ways—shifting the public's attention to the president's debilities, tipping the balance of power away from him, skimming off the froth of conspiratorial thinking, moving the fight to a rule-bound forum, and dealing lasting damage to his political prospects—the impeachment process has succeeded in the past. In fact, it's the very efficacy of these past efforts that should give Congress pause; it's a process that should be triggered only when a president's betrayal of his basic duties requires it. But Trump's conduct clearly meets that threshold. The only question is whether Congress will act.

Here is how impeachment would work in practice. The Constitution lays out the process clearly, and two centuries of precedent will guide Congress in its work. The House possesses the sole power of impeachment—a procedure analogous to an indictment. Traditionally, this has meant tapping a committee to summon witnesses, subpoena documents, hold hearings, and consider the evidence. The committee can then propose specific articles of impeachment to the full House. If a simple majority approves the charges, they are forwarded to the Senate. The chief justice of the United States presides over the trial; members of the House are designated to act as "managers," or prosecuting attorneys. If two-thirds of the senators who are present vote to convict, the president is removed from office; if vote falls short, he is not.

Although the process is fairly clear, the Founders left us only vague instructions about when to implement it. The Constitution offers a short, cryptic list of the offenses that merit the impeachment and removal of federal officials: "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The first two items are comparatively straightforward. The Constitution elsewhere specifies that treason against the United States consists "only in levying War" against the country or in giving the country's enemies "Aid and Comfort." As proof, it requires either the testimony of two witnesses or confession in open court. Despite the appalling looseness with which the charge of treason has been bandied about by members of Congress past and present, no federal official—much less a president—has ever been impeached for it. (Even the darkest theories of Trump's alleged collusion with Russia seem unlikely to meet the Constitution's strict definition of that crime.) Bribery, similarly, has been alleged only once, and against a judge, not a president.

It is the third item on the list—"high crimes and misdemeanors"—on which all presidential impeachments have hinged. If the House begins impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, the charges will depend on this clause, but Congress will first need to decide what it means.

At the Constitutional Convention, an early draft included "treason, bribery, and corruption," but it was shorn of that last item by the time it arrived on the floor. George Mason, of Virginia, spoke up. "Why is the provision restrained to Treason & bribery only?" he asked, according to James Madison's notes. "Treason as defined in the Constitution will not reach many great and dangerous offences … Attempts to subvert the Constitution may not be Treason as above defined." Mason moved to add "or maladministration."

Madison, though, objected that "so vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate." Gouverneur Morris further argued that "an election of every four years will prevent maladministration." Mere incompetence or policy disputes were best dealt with by voters. But that still left Mason's original concern, for the "many great and dangerous offences" not covered by treason or bribery. Instead of "maladministration," he suggested, why not substitute "other high crimes & misdemeanors (agst. the State)"? The motion carried.

Constitutional lawyers have been arguing about what counts as a "high crime" or "misdemeanor" ever since. The phrase itself was borrowed from English common law, although there is no reason to suppose Mason and his colleagues were deeply familiar with its uses in that context. The Nixon impeachment spurred Charles L. Black, a Yale law professor, to write Impeachment: A Handbook, a slender volume that remains a defining work on the question.

Black makes two key points. First, he notes that as a matter of logic as well as context and precedent, not every violation of a criminal statute amounts to a "high crime" or "misdemeanor." To apply his reasoning, some crimes—say, violating 40 U.S.C. §8103(b)(2) by willfully injuring a shrub on federal property in Washington, D.C.—cannot possibly be impeachable offenses. Conversely, a president may violate his oath of office without violating the letter of the law. A president could, for example, harness the enforcement powers of the federal government to systematically persecute his political opponents, or he could grossly neglect the duties of his office. That sort of conduct, in Black's view, is impeachable even when it is not actually criminal.

His second point rests upon the principle of eiusdem generis—literally, "of the same kind." As the last item in a list of three impeachable offenses, surely "high crimes and misdemeanors" shares some essential features with the first two. Black suggests that treason and bribery have in common three essential features: They are extremely serious, they stand to corrupt and subvert government and the political process, and they are self-evidently wrong to any person with a shred of honor. These, he argues, are features that a "high crime" or "misdemeanor" ought to share.

Black's views on these points are not uncontested. Nixon's attorneys argued that impeachment did require a crime. In 1974, before Black published his book, a report from the Justice Department split the difference, concluding that "there are persuasive grounds for arguing both the narrow view that a violation of criminal law is required and the broader view that certain non-criminal 'political offenses' may justify impeachment."

John Doar, the attorney hired by the House Judiciary Committee to oversee the Nixon investigation, handed off the question of what constituted an impeachable offense to two young staffers: Bill Weld and Hillary Rodham. They determined that the answers they were seeking were to be found not in old case law, but in the public debates that raged around past impeachment efforts. The memo Weld and Rodham helped produce drew on that context and sided with Black: "High crimes and misdemeanors" need not be crimes. In the end, Weld came to believe that impeachment is a political process, aimed at determining whether a president has fallen short of the duties of his office. But that doesn't mean it's arbitrary. In fact, the Nixon impeachment left Weld with a renewed faith in the American system of government: "The wheels may grind slowly," he later reflected, "but they grind pretty well."

Some Democrats have already seen enough from the Trump administration to conclude that it has met the criteria for impeachment. In July 2017, Representative Brad Sherman of California put forward an impeachment resolution; it garnered a single co-sponsor. The next month, though, brought the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump's defense of the "very fine people on both sides." The billionaire activist Tom Steyer launched a petition drive calling for impeachment. A second resolution was introduced in the House that November, this time by Tennessee's Steve Cohen, who found 17 co-sponsors. By December 2017, when Representative Al Green of Texas forced consideration of a third resolution, 58 Democrats voted in favor of continuing debate, including Jim Clyburn, the House's third-ranking Democrat. On the first day of the new Congress in January, Sherman reintroduced his resolution.

These efforts are exercises in political messaging, not serious attempts to tackle the question of impeachment. They invert the process, offering lists of charges for the House to consider, rather than asking the House to consider what charges may be justified. The House should instead approve a resolution authorizing an impeachment inquiry and allocating the staff, funding, and other resources necessary to pursue it, as the resolution that initiated the proceedings against Richard Nixon did.

Still, the resolutions proposed so far offer a valuable glimpse at the issues House Democrats are likely to pursue in such an inquiry. Some have made a general case that Trump has done violence to American values—Green's stated that Trump "has betrayed his trust as President … to the manifest injury of the people of the United States"—but others have claimed specific violations of statutes or constitutional provisions. Both types of allegations may turn out to be important.

Despite the consensus of constitutional scholars that impeachable offenses need not be crimes, Congress has generally preferred to vote on articles that allege criminal acts. More than a third of representatives, and an outright majority of senators, hold law degrees; they think like lawyers. Democrats are thus focused on campaign-finance regulations, obstruction of justice, tax laws, money-laundering rules, proscriptions on bribing foreign officials, and the Constitution's two emoluments clauses, which bar the president from accepting gifts from state or foreign governments.

They have studiously avoided, however, the primary area of public fascination when it comes to Trump's alleged misdeeds: whether the president or his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. Lawmakers are clearly wary of bringing charges that could bear on Robert Mueller's report, lest they interfere with an ongoing investigation that they hope will somehow force Trump from office. "It all depends on what we learn from hearings and from the Mueller investigation," Representative Cohen told me. But the highly anticipated Mueller report is unlikely to provide the denouement lawmakers are seeking. Whether a president can be impeached for acts committed prior to assuming office is an unsettled question. As Trump himself never tires of pointing out, collusion with Russia is not itself a crime. And even if Mueller produces a singularly damning report, one presenting evidence that the president himself has committed criminal acts, he cannot indict the president—at least according to current Justice Department guidelines. Congress will have to decide what to do about it.

Once the House authorizes an impeachment inquiry, the committee must distill the evidence of Trump's alleged crimes into articles capable of garnering a majority vote in that chamber. But that's just the first challenge. To remove Trump from office, the House managers will then have to persuade the Senate to vote to convict the president. When the articles of impeachment are filed with the Senate, where the president will be tried, each article will be considered and voted on individually.

And then, suddenly, the members of the United States Senate will be forced to answer a question that many have long evaded: Is the president fit to continue in office? There will be no press aides to hide behind, no elevators into which they can duck. Some Democrats have already made their opinions clear. Others will have to decide whether to vote to remove a president backed by a majority of their constituents. For Republicans, the choice will be even harder.

This is where the dual nature of impeachment as both a legal and a political process comes into sharpest focus. The Founders worried about electing a president who lacked character or a sense of honor, but Americans have long since lost the moral vocabulary to articulate such concerns explicitly, preferring to look instead for demonstrable violations of rules that illuminate underlying character flaws. It is Trump's unfitness for office that necessitates impeachment; his attacks on American democracy are plainly evident, and should be sufficient. But some Republican senators may continue to dismiss the more sweeping claims against the president, particularly where no statutory crimes attach. And so the strength of the evidence supporting narrower charges such as obstruction of justice and campaign-finance violations may ultimately determine his fate. If the committee can substantiate these charges, it will place even the most reluctant senators in a bind. When the moment finally comes to cast their vote, and the world is watching, how many will acquit the president of things he has clearly done?

The closest the Senate has ever come to removing a president was in 1868, after Andrew Johnson was impeached on 11 counts. Remembered today as a lamentable exercise in hyper-partisanship, in fact Johnson's impeachment functioned as the Founders had intended, sparing the country from the further depredations of a president who had betrayed his most basic responsibilities. We need to recover the real story of Johnson's impeachment, because it offers the best evidence that the current president, too, must be impeached.

The case before the United States in 1868 bears striking similarities to the case before the country now—and no president in history more resembles the 45th than the 17th. "The president of the United States," E. P. Whipple wrote in this magazine in 1866, "has so singular a combination of defects for the office of a constitutional magistrate, that he could have obtained the opportunity to misrule the nation only by a visitation of Providence. Insincere as well as stubborn, cunning as well as unreasonable, vain as well as ill-tempered, greedy of popularity as well as arbitrary in disposition, veering in his mind as well as fixed in his will, he unites in his character the seemingly opposite qualities of demagogue and autocrat." Johnson, he continued, was "egotistic to the point of mental disease" and had become "the prey of intriguers and sycophants."

Whipple was among Johnson's more verbose critics, but hardly the most scathing. A remarkable number of Americans looked at the president and saw a man grossly unfit for office. Johnson, a Democrat from a Civil War border state, had been tapped by Lincoln in 1864 to join him on a national-unity ticket. A fierce opponent of the slaveholding elite and a self-styled champion of the white yeomanry, Johnson spoke to voters skeptical of the Republican Party's progressive agenda. He horrified much of the East Coast establishment, but his raw, even profane style appealed to many voters. The National Union Party, seeking the destruction of slavery and the Confederacy, swept to victory.

No one ever thought Johnson would be president. Then, in 1865, Booth's bullet put him in office. The end of the war exposed how different Johnson's own agenda was from the policies favored by Lincoln. Johnson wanted to reintegrate the South into the Union as swiftly as possible, devoid of slavery but otherwise little changed. Most congressional Republicans, by contrast, wanted to seize the moment to build a new social order in the South, enshrining equality and protecting civil rights. Johnson sought to restore America as it had been, while the Republicans hoped to make it more perfect.

The two visions were irreconcilable. As the feud deepened, each side pushed its commitments to their logical extremes. Congressional Republicans approved the Fourteenth Amendment, voted to enlarge the role of the Freedmen's Bureau, and passed the Civil Rights Act. Taken together, these measures established the equality of Americans before the law and, for the first time, made its preservation a federal concern. They amounted to nothing less than a social revolution, a promise of an America that belonged to all Americans, not just to white men.

From the archives: [W. E. B. Du Bois on the Freedmen's Bureau]

Johnson and his supporters found this intolerable. In federal efforts to establish racial equality, they saw antiwhite discrimination. Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act, insisting that "the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race." For the first time in American history, Congress overrode a veto to pass a major piece of legislation. Three months later, he vetoed the renewal of the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, complaining that its plan to distribute land to former slaves constituted "discrimination" that would establish a "favored class of citizens." Congress again overrode his veto. That set up an unprecedented situation, as the president was asked to administer laws he had tried to block. Instead of the promised peace, the nation found itself gripped by an accelerating crisis.

The Senate trial of Andrew Johnson
The Senate trial of Andrew Johnson. Recalled today as a folly, in fact Johnson's impeachment spared the U.S. from the further depredations of a president who had betrayed his most basic responsibilities. (Library of Congress / Getty)

The question facing Congress, and the public, was this: What do you do with a president whose every utterance and act seems to undermine the Constitution he is sworn to uphold? At first, Republicans pursued the standard mix of legislative remedies—holding hearings and passing bills designed to strip the president of certain powers. Many members of Johnson's Cabinet worked with their congressional counterparts to constrain the president. Johnson began to see conspiracies around every corner. He moved to purge the bureaucracy of his opponents, denouncing the "blood-suckers and cormorants" who frustrated his desires.

It was the campaign of white-nationalist terror that raged through the spring and summer of 1866 that persuaded many Republicans they could not allow Johnson to remain in office. In Tennessee, where Johnson had until the year before served as military governor, a white mob opposed to black equality rampaged through the streets of Memphis in May, slaughtering dozens of people as it went. July brought a second massacre, this one in New Orleans, where efforts to enfranchise black voters sparked a riot. A mob filled with police, firemen, armed youths, and Confederate veterans shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and mutilated dozens, many of them black veterans of the Union Army. Johnson chose not to suppress the violence, using fear of disorder to build a constituency more loyal to him than to either party.

Congress opened impeachment hearings. The process unfolded in fits and starts over the next year and a half, as Johnson's congressional opponents searched vainly for some charge that could gain the support of a majority of the House. Then Johnson handed it to them by firing his secretary of war, defying a law passed, in part, to stop him from undermining Reconstruction. The House passed 11 articles of impeachment, forcing Johnson to stand trial before the Senate. But the effort fell short by a single vote.

When Johnson's supporters learned that he had been spared, they were ecstatic. In Milwaukee, they careened down the street in a wagon, shouting for Johnson and liberty, sharing a keg of beer. In Boston and in Hartford, Connecticut, they fired 100‑gun salutes; in Dearborn, Michigan, they settled for 19 guns and bonfires. "We have stood for the last few months upon the verge of a precipice, a dark abyss of anarchy yawning at our feet," the Maryland Democrat Stevenson Archer said, sketching an alternative result whereby "dark-skinned fiends and white-faced, white-livered vampires might rule and riot on the little blood they could still suck out by fastening on helpless throats."

But the euphoria proved short-lived. The New York Times urged Johnson's supporters to look at the bigger picture: "Congress has assumed control of the whole matter of reconstruction, and will assert and exercise it." Any effort to wrest control back from the House and Senate was held in check by the specter of another impeachment, which haunted Johnson's remaining months in office. The Democrats took up Johnson's political cause; their convention theme in 1868 was "This Is a White Man's Country; Let White Men Rule." But when the politically damaged Johnson made a bid for the Democratic nomination—"Why should they not take me up?"—he was refused. Ulysses S. Grant won on the Republican ticket, and threw the full force of the Army behind the project of Reconstruction. Johnson went home to Tennessee.

If the goal of impeachment was to frustrate Johnson's efforts to make America a white man's country again, it was an unqualified success. Instead of being remembered as a triumph, however, in the years that followed, it was memorialized as a failure. Defending the impeachment on substantive grounds required believing that all people born in the United States—white and black alike—deserved the same civil liberties. And a decade later, America changed its mind about that, abandoning the project of Reconstruction and reneging on its promise of civil rights for African Americans. Johnson had said he was fighting to preserve a "white man's government," and for the next century, that's what the country largely had. Robbed of its animating force, the bill of particulars against Johnson began to seem hollow, petty, and misguided. How could it have been proper to impeach a president for undermining the Constitution's guarantee of equality, when the nation as a whole had subsequently done the same?

The chorus of experts who now present Johnson's impeachment as an exercise in raw partisanship are not learning from history but, rather, erasing it. Johnson used his office to deny the millions freed from bondage the equality that God had given them and that the Constitution guaranteed. To deny the justice of Johnson's impeachment is to affirm the justice of his acts. If his impeachment was partisan, it was because one party had been formed to defend the freedom of man, and the other had not yet reconciled itself to that proposition.

The senators who voted against convicting Johnson insisted that they were standing on principle and upholding the Constitution. Yet some of the same lawmakers who expended so much effort defending the prerogatives of the presidency simultaneously turned a blind eye to the gross civil-rights violations that pervaded the South; their deep concern for constitutional niceties with respect to the president gave way to willful indifference when blacks were the ones who were systematically and violently deprived of their rights. It was a bitter irony: The impeachment proceedings were greeted with alarm by those who feared they would destroy the Constitution. In the end, though, it was the regular process of government that eventually ratified Jim Crow, the most outrageous abrogation of constitutional protections in the nation's history. Impeachment drew the United States closer to living up to its ideals, if only fleetingly, by rallying the public against Johnson's assault on the Constitution.

Today, the United States once more confronts a president who seems to care for only some of the people he represents, who promises his supporters that he can roll back the tide of diversity, who challenges the rule of law, and who regards constitutional rights and liberties as disposable. Congress must again decide whether the greater risk lies in executing the Constitution as it was written, or in deferring to voters to do what it cannot muster the courage to do itself. The gravest danger facing the country is not a Congress that seeks to measure the president against his oath—it is a president who fails to measure up to that solemn promise.

This article appears in the March 2019 print edition with the headline "The Case for Impeachment."

Impeachment: An Argument

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 08:36 PM PST

In the March 1976 issue of The Atlantic, Elliot Richardson, the former attorney general, made a silver-lining argument about the then-recent constitutional crisis:

Beyond its own sordid confines, Watergate has been redemptive—a disguised stroke of good fortune … The good fortune may yet turn to ashes, but I am one of those whom H. L. Mencken called the "optimists and chronic hopers of the world," and I see gain for this country in the reassertion of old ideals and the renewal of government processes.

Richardson had resigned his post in 1973 rather than follow President Richard Nixon's directive to fire the first Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. The "Saturday Night Massacre," as it became known, placed Nixon firmly on the path to disgrace.

When Yoni Appelbaum, the editor of The Atlantic's Ideas section and a historian of American institutions, recently made an argument to us about the efficacy of impeachment, I turned to our Watergate-era archives. Yoni's argument is in one way similar to Richardson's. Impeachment, as I had previously understood it, seemed like a formula for chaos, the sort of chaos no fractured nation needs. But impeachment, Yoni said, is actually an antidote to chaos. The Framers provided in the Constitution an orderly, evidence-based process that allows the American people, through their elected representatives, to determine whether a president has displayed the character and moral fitness to continue to serve as the nation's chief executive. Yoni's view is that we should take the debate over President Donald Trump's fitness out of the court of public opinion and place it where it belongs: in Congress. This "renewal of government processes" might itself be redemptive, and would certainly be clarifying.

Here at The Atlantic, we are caught in an eternal dilemma. Our founding manifesto promises readers that we will be of no party or clique. This is why The Atlantic is generally so hesitant to endorse candidates for any office. And yet our founding editors also promised that The Atlantic would stand for impartial liberty and wage war "against despotism in every form." The magazine endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (but not, for reasons lost to history, in 1864). In 1964, faced with a candidate for president temperamentally unsuited for office, The Atlantic came out in favor of the incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson. And in 2016, we endorsed Hillary Clinton. As in 1964, this most recent endorsement was more of an anti-endorsement. We argued that Trump was "spectacularly unfit" for office. "His affect is that of an infomercial huckster," we wrote in November 2016. "He traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself."

In retrospect, we may have been guilty of understatement. In our recently posted digital feature, "Unthinkable," 50 of our writers examined the most outlandish moments of Trump's first two years in office, incidents that we could not imagine occurring in other administrations, whether Republican or Democratic. If you've read "Unthinkable," you'll understand why I consider Yoni's cover story, "The Case for Impeachment," worth publishing.

Some home news: After a dazzling run as editor of the print magazine, Scott Stossel, who first crossed The Atlantic's threshold in 1992, has taken on another role here, that of national editor. He will also be writing feature stories for the magazine, which is a blessing for all of our readers. I asked Scott's deputy, Don Peck, one of the great ideas editors in American journalism, to take on the editor role, and he has begun his term brilliantly. I also asked Denise Wills, our features editor, to replace Don in the deputy role. Denise is one of the best narrative-nonfiction editors working today—many of the stories we've loved the most in recent years have been Denise's doing. Joining Don and Denise is the legendary designer Peter Mendelsund, who will be our new creative director, and the gifted Oliver Munday, who is coming aboard as senior art director. We already have the strongest team in magazine journalism; these new leaders will ensure that The Atlantic goes from strength to strength.

This article appears in the March 2019 print edition with the headline "Impeachment: An Argument."

<em>The Atlantic </em>Daily: The 2020 Census Citizenship Question Isn’t Dead Yet

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 04:38 PM PST

What We're Following

A federal judge threw a wrench in the Trump administration's plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census, declaring that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated federal law by providing the public with false rationales on its inclusion. Groups suspicious of the question have long fretted that it could lead undocumented immigrants to forgo filling out the census. Now comes an appeal to the Supreme Court, but even if the administration doesn't get its way, seeds of distrust have already been planted.

President Donald Trump might command much of the media spotlight. Here's a look at a few staffers who will help command policy: Andrew Wheeler, Trump's pick to lead the EPA, had his turn on the congressional hot seat today. If confirmed, the former coal lobbyist could be a skilled tactician at rolling back environmental regulations. Meanwhile, lesser-known Shahira Knight, the president's top liaison with Congress—and shutdown negotiator—has managed to conduct her work behind the scenes and evade controversy. Finally, William Barr, likely the next attorney general, seemed to appease congressional Democrats in his confirmation hearing. But why does Barr, a veteran lawyer who already served as attorney general under George H. W. Bush, want the job at all?

Facebook's throng of users are still hazy on how the tech behemoth, consumed by scandal after scandal, makes money. A new study shows that a large percentage of Facebook users aren't aware of the store of behavioral and relationship data the platform has on them—a list of "traits and interests" for almost all active users (you can see what Facebook has on you, here).Recent Facebook feeds have been filled with users' before-and-after pictures, from 2019 versus 2009. Some wary critics speculate that the meme could be a nefarious ploy to hone Facebook's facial-recognition algorithms. But "if you think that not posting these two photos does anything to surveillance capitalism or the platforms that succeed through it, that's just not right."

Saahil Desai


Donald Trump's 50 Most Unthinkable Moments

(Gary Cameron / Reuters)

Unthinkable is The Atlantic's catalog of 50 incidents from the first two years of President Trump's first term in office, ranked—highly subjectively!—according to both their outlandishness and their importance.

At No. 3: Trump is the first modern president not to release his tax returns. He's also making substantial money outside the presidency.

Join the conversation: Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list? Email us at letters@theatlantic.com with the subject line "Unthinkable," and include your full name, city, and state. Or tweet using the hashtag #TrumpUnthinkable.

Evening Read

For decades, researchers have chronicled infants' first words and how humans develop language. But what about the words people say just before they die?

Many people die in such silence, particularly if they have advanced dementia or Alzheimer's that robbed them of language years earlier. For those who do speak, it seems their vernacular is often banal. From a doctor I heard that people often say, "Oh fuck, oh fuck." Often it's the names of wives, husbands, children. "A nurse from the hospice told me that the last words of dying men often resembled each other," wrote Hajo Schumacher in a September essay inDer Spiegel. "Almost everyone is calling for 'Mommy' or 'Mama' with the last breath."

It's still the interactions that fascinate me, partly because their subtle interpersonal textures are lost when they're written down.

→ Read the rest.

Looking for our daily mini crossword? Try your hand at it here—the puzzle gets more difficult through the week.

Concerns, comments, questions, typos? Email Shan Wang at swang@theatlantic.com.

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<em>The Atlantic</em> Politics & Policy Daily: Date of the Union

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 03:10 PM PST

What We're Following Today

It's Wednesday, January 16. The partial government shutdown is now in its 26th day. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked that President Donald Trump postpone—or deliver in writing—his State of the Union address, which is scheduled for January 29, saying that because of security concerns, it would be better to wait until after the government is reopened. The White House has not yet responded, but in a tweet, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen pushed back on Pelosi's concerns.

Shutdown Watch: Democrats are weighing their options should the president declare a state of emergency for his border wall. If they go the way of filing a lawsuit against him, there's precedent for that—set by Republicans challenging Obamacare in 2014. Meanwhile, Shahira Knight, Trump's chief advocate on Capitol Hill, has become a key player behind the scenes in the shutdown fight. "If this ends in a way both sides are even somewhat happy with, it'll be mainly because of her," one White House official told Elaina Plott.

ISIS: Just weeks after the president said the Islamic State was defeated in Syria, and as the military begins the withdrawal of approximately 2,000 U.S. troops stationed there, ISIS claimed credit for an attack in the country that killed 19 people, including four Americans.

Raise the Barr: Wednesday was the second full day of confirmation hearings for William Barr, Trump's pick to replace Jeff Sessions as the next attorney general. But the veteran lawyer, who says he loves the Justice Department and celebrates the rule of law, seems a strange fit for the job.

Gearing Up for 2020: As the Democratic primary heats up, it's becoming clearer that many potential contenders are already developing aggressive policies to combat the racial wealth gap, reports Vann R. Newkirk II. In other 2020 news, a federal judge has held that the Trump administration's proposal to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census is unconstitutional—but the Supreme Court could still review the decision.

Elaine Godfrey


Donald Trump's 50 Most Unthinkable Moments

(Gary Cameron / Reuters)

Unthinkable is The Atlantic's catalog of 50 incidents from the first two years of President Trump's first term in office, ranked—highly subjectively!—according to both their outlandishness and their importance.

At No. 3: Trump is the first modern president not to release his tax returns. He's also making substantial money outside the presidency.

Join the conversation: Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list? Email us at letters@theatlantic.com with the subject line "Unthinkable," and include your full name, city, and state. Or tweet using the hashtag #TrumpUnthinkable.

Readers told us:

"Even more important, and even more unthinkable (although not attributable to this presidency), are the facts that virtually no Republican in Congress has challenged this president when any of these 50 events have occurred."
— John Crusius of Seattle, Washington

"To me, the biggest damage may be the abandoned treaties and NATO support."
— Paul David Musgrave of McDade, Texas

"In New Bern, North Carolina, as he was looking at the aftermath of the hurricane, Trump said to a homeowner with a big boat in his front yard, 'At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.'"
— Ann Ringland, Durham, North Carolina


Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib laugh as they wait for other freshman legislators to deliver a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling for an end to the government shutdown. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

Ideas From The Atlantic

Will Barr Defend the Constitution or Trump? (Adam Serwer)
"Barr has said he won't be bullied into being a Trump crony. But that doesn't mean he won't do exactly what Trump wants him to do. It might just mean he doesn't need to be bullied into it." → Read on.

Nancy Pelosi Is Winning (Peter Beinart)
"She's not only refusing Donald Trump's demand for a border wall. She's trying to cripple his presidency. And she may well succeed." → Read on.

The Real Significance of the FBI's Probe Into Trump (Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes)
"It is quite another thing to learn that the FBI actually took the investigative step of identifying the president personally—not just his campaign or his associates—as the focus of a counterintelligence probe." → Read on.

What Else We're Reading

Israel Will Be the Great Foreign Policy Debate of the Democratic Primary (Emily Tamkin and Alexis Levinson, BuzzFeed News)

Fake Editions of Washington Post Falsely Claim Trump Steps Down (Rebecca Morin, Politico)

Trump and Putin Have Met Five Times. What Was Said Is a Mystery. (Peter Baker, The New York Times)

Is AOC the Future of Politics? Is Trump? (Jonathan V. Last, The Bulwark)

We're always looking for ways to improve The Politics & Policy Daily, and will be testing some formats throughout the new year. Concerns, comments, questions, typos? Let us know anytime here.

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Millennials Stare Into the Void, and Gillette Stares Back

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 04:05 PM PST

On Monday, the men's shaving brand Gillette released a new commercial and social-responsibility initiative, and the internet had some feedback. The ad, which shifts Gillette's longtime tagline from "The Best a Man Can Get" to "The Best Men Can Be," is intended to mark the brand's 30th anniversary and reflect on the masculine ideals the razor purveyor has endorsed in the past and will demonstrate going forward. It also promises million-dollar donations to nonprofits with related goals over the next three years, starting with the Boys & Girls Club of America.

Reactions were very mixed and very loud, even though the ad itself is pretty moderate and diverse in its depictions of male behavior. It features fictionalized scenes and clips from the news or viral videos. Some of the men depicted bully or sexually harass others, while other men are active parents and healthy conflict-resolvers. The spot's voice-over ends by reminding viewers that what they do is important, because it sets an example for the next generation.

[Read: The many possible meanings of the "masculinity crisis]"

The campaign itself isn't new—a related ad featuring the disabled NFL player Shaquem Griffin has been on the air for much of football season—but the debut of this new chapter sparked outrage among many conservatives online, who characterized the criticisms of masculine socialization as another round in what they see as a prolonged cultural attack on American men. One Twitter user threw his Gillette razor in the toilet, later clarifying that he did not flush. (His displeasure at the ad appeared to be genuine, even if his commitment to clogging his toilet was not.)

Perhaps because people love any prompt to argue on the internet, many progressives responded with support for Gillette's message—even if it was sometimes tinged with skepticism—and a viral ad was born. Gillette may not have anticipated exactly this magnitude of reaction, but in stepping into what many Millennials see as a leadership void left by ineffective government and cultural leaders, it's become the latest example of exactly what many marketers think brands have to do to communicate with the next generation of shoppers.

"The intention was not to be political at all," according to Pankaj Bhalla, the North American brand director for Gillette. While it's unclear whether it's even possible to take on a social issue without being political in the current American cultural climate, Bhalla thinks brands feel pressure from Millennial and Gen Z shoppers to step beyond the bounds of straightforward consumer-product marketing. "I think it is important to stand for more than the product's benefit that you provide, and I think that's the expectation of our younger audiences," he says.

It's too early to know if Gillette's campaign will pay dividends for the brand, but social-responsibility marketing is a method with a considerable history, dotted with notable success stories. Most famously, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty kicked off years of viral ads and dozens of imitators by explicating the ways that personal-care marketing capitalizes on women's insecurities. More recently, Nike's Just Do It campaign gained broad attention by casting the NFL social-justice pariah Colin Kaepernick as its most prominent face.

Although skeptics point out that these initiatives often offer consumers few solutions to social problems beyond buying a company's products, it seems like younger shoppers do want brands to weigh in on larger issues. According to a recent survey by the market-research firm Sprout Social, 66 percent of American consumers want companies to take public stands on social and political problems. The researchers ultimately concluded that doing so offered brands greater reward than it did risk, even though gaffes are possible. (Remember that Pepsi ad in which Kendall Jenner made peace between protesters and police by offering one officer a beverage?)

[Read: Pepsi's ad was a total success]

So what's motivating teens and young adults to look to brands for moral leadership? "As trust goes down in institutions, people are looking for somebody to step up to the plate," says Peggy Simcic Brønn, a professor of communication and culture at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo who has tracked social-responsibility marketing for more than two decades. "NGOs and governmental institutions, which we depend on to address bad things, they're not doing it. So who's left to do it? That's business."

Tülin Erdem, a marketing professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, also sees Millennial angst as part of the equation. "Commercial life is so much a part of the cultural landscape, compared to 20 to 30 years ago," she says. "Given that fact, and given that Millennials are looking for meaning, if you put the two together, I think that's why we're seeing [these ads]." Young people are staring into the void—and into an economic climate custom-made to break their back. What stares back is consumer choice, however ineffective. Marketers, it seems, have simply noticed the opportunity to meet the expectations that go along with that.

That doesn't mean everyone loves the approach: Taking sides requires companies to alienate some tradition-minded customers, who are often older and more conservative, as seemed to be the case with Gillette's backlash. But that's okay, according to Brønn. Building brand loyalty in young people is very important for the long-term health of a company, and Gillette in particular has recently been challenged from youth-focused upstarts like Dollar Shave Club.

But beyond any single brand's positioning, what these marketing efforts help do is rebrand capitalism in a time when young people are questioning its efficacy. "If we want the world to survive, we have to think about the humans in it, not just selling products and making money," says Brønn. She's hopeful these marketing efforts are an indication that brands are sincere in their desire to be better global citizens.

[Read: What Kaepernick risks by teaming up with Nike]

Gillette's parent company, Procter & Gamble, has so far declined to pull the brand's ads (and, by extension, its financial support) from Fox News, a channel where hosts often advocate the kind of old-school ideas Gillette's new campaign portends to discourage. At the very least, the company's desire to acquire Millennial market share seems very sincere.

The Deadliest Day for the U.S. in Syria

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 02:30 PM PST

Mere weeks after President Donald Trump declared on Twitter that the Islamic State was defeated in Syria and it was time to leave, the militants claimed credit for an attack that, in one stroke, more than doubled the overall death toll the U.S. has suffered in the counter-ISIS campaign. An explosion in the Kurdish-held town of Manbij killed two U.S. soldiers, along with a Defense Department civilian and a contractor, according to the Pentagon. More than 10 others were also reported killed.

"Our fight against terrorism is ongoing and we will remain vigilant and committed to its destruction," Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan told reporters after the attack. But the fight has grown more complicated as the military begins the process of withdrawing some 2,000 troops from Syria and diplomats scramble to plan what will happen after they leave.

The assault in northern Syria underscores both the reasons Trump wants to get out and the forces that will make it difficult. The administration has said that ISIS has lost some 98 percent of its territory, but official estimates from both the U.S. Defense Department and the United Nations put the number of ISIS members in the thousands. Last April, a spokesman for the counter-ISIS coalition noted that as the group was driven out of territory, it had sought ways to rebuild itself in desert areas, as well as in population centers.

[Read: Trump is rushing the Syria withdrawal—and that could backfire]

The administration's shifting Syria policy was fraught and controversial even before Wednesday's attack. Trump's late-December withdrawal announcement was widely criticized as ill-conceived and hasty, even among some who had advocated getting U.S. troops out of Syria. Trump's then–Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned within days, reportedly in part over the decision. Conflicting reports about the timeline for the withdrawal and the objectives that need to be secured beforehand have added to the confusion.

Meanwhile, Manbij itself illustrates that territory retaken from ISIS remains vulnerable to insurgent attack. U.S. and Kurdish forces wrested control of the town from the militant group back in 2016. But it was also the place where, last March, a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb, in what was then only the second fatality of the U.S. ground deployment in Syria.

Plans for a U.S. withdrawal have complicated the security situation, but it was plenty complicated to begin with. The town lies in territory controlled by a mix of competing factions, and the Turks have directly threatened it, believing the Kurdish forces there to be terrorists.

The Trump administration has discussed with Turkey establishing a safe zone in northern Syria where Manbij is located, though it's so far unclear exactly where it would be and who would patrol it. The Kurds in the area could be vulnerable to attack not just from the Turks over their border, but from an Assad regime that may ultimately try to take back the territory under Kurdish control.

[George Packer: No peace for them and no honor for us]

Some critics of the Syria withdrawal, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump, were quick to draw a connection between the withdrawal announcement and Wednesday's attack. "My concern about the statements made by President Trump is that you'd set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we're fighting," Graham said at an unrelated hearing. ISIS has always considered U.S. troops in Syria as its enemy, regardless of how long they plan to stay; and once they're gone, the group retains the ability to turn its guns and bombers on those who remain.

Still, there was no indication on Wednesday that the military's plans had changed in light of the attack. Speaking at the State Department on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence touted the administration's successes against ISIS without initially mentioning the attack—but in a statement offering condolences to the victims' families, he reiterated the administration's view that "we have crushed the caliphate and devastated its capabilities." The caliphate may be gone, but the capabilities are far from destroyed.

Nancy Pelosi’s Power Move on the State of the Union

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 02:25 PM PST

The latest casualty of the partial government shutdown might be President Donald Trump's State of the Union address.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a letter to the president on Wednesday, suggested that the annual speech before Congress be postponed or scrapped altogether in light of the legislative impasse that has led to the ongoing shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

"Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week," the speaker wrote, "I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th."

Pelosi's missive was cloaked in the politesse of a formal communication from the leader of one branch of government to another. But it was nothing less than a threat to deploy Pelosi's authority as speaker to deny Trump the use of perhaps the country's most powerful pulpit in the middle of a partisan standoff.

With the shutdown nearing the one-month mark and both parties dug in, it is easy to imagine Trump using the perch of the House rostrum to browbeat congressional Democrats for an hour on national TV—a longer and more visually dynamic version of the Oval Office address he delivered, to little effect, last week. Without the speech, however, he would lose the single best opportunity a president gets each year to pitch his agenda both to Congress and the public, as well as to frame the national debate entirely on his terms.

Although this year's State of the Union is still two weeks away, Pelosi acted preemptively and effectively revoked an invitation she extended to Trump on the day she was sworn in as speaker. Noting that a State of the Union speech has never taken place during a government shutdown, she cited the possible impact of the funding lapse on security preparations by the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service. The State of the Union is annually designated as a "national special security event," and as such, Pelosi wrote, requires "weeks of detailed planning with dozens of agencies working together to prepare for the safety of all participants."

The Trump administration disputed Pelosi's characterization of the shutdown's impact on the State of the Union address. But the president alone doesn't get to decide whether he'll appear before Congress. The Constitution states that the president shall "from time to time give to the Congress information on the State of the Union." The nation's founding document says nothing, however, about a formal speech, or even that the presidential message be delivered every year.

Indeed, as Pelosi noted in her letter, presidents throughout the 19th century issued their State of the Union message in writing. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson revived the practice started by George Washington, and continued by John Adams, of delivering a formal speech to Congress.

Presidents speak to Congress only by invitation and a joint resolution passed by the House and Senate. This is usually a formality, but if the 26-day shutdown continues, it won't be this year. Weeks after Pelosi extended an invitation to Trump, Congress has yet to pass the resolution confirming the offer.

Neither the White House nor the Republican leadership in Congress responded to Pelosi's letter in the initial hours after her office released it on Wednesday morning. But a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted on Twitter that although Pelosi cited the shuttered government as a reason for wanting to reschedule the speech, the shutdown had already begun by the time she invited Trump. Later in the afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen contradicted Pelosi's stated reason for wanting to reschedule the presidential address. "The Department of Homeland Security and the US Secret Service are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union," she tweeted. "We thank the Service for their mission focus and dedication and for all they do each day to secure our homeland."

Although a president has never delivered a State of the Union address while major parts of the government have been closed, the speeches have taken place in the midst of tense battles with Congress. In 1998, President Bill Clinton appeared before a Republican-led Congress in the Capitol just over a week after the revelation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, which would lead to his impeachment by the House later that year. His State of the Union address the next year occurred while he was on trial in the Senate.

Conceivably, Trump could simply choose another venue to deliver a State of the Union address, so long as he prints out a written copy and sends it to the Capitol. "He could make it from the Oval Office if he wants," Pelosi told reporters.

The dispute over the annual speech could be rendered moot, of course, by a swift end to the government shutdown that began last month. That, however, appears unlikely. There have been no high-level negotiations between the White House and Democratic leaders since Trump stormed out of a meeting last week with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

On Wednesday, the president met with House lawmakers from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. But before the meeting, Democratic members of the group reiterated the primary demand of their party's leadership—that Trump allow the government to reopen before any substantive negotiations over border security take place. A statement from the White House after the meeting said it was "constructive" but did not point to any notable progress. "They listened to one another and now both have a good understanding of what the other wants," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. "We look forward to more conversations like this."

In the Senate, attention turned to persuading the president to relent on his demand for border-wall funding, even if only for a few weeks. A letter from a bipartisan group of senators, circulating throughout the Capitol, called on Trump to support a three-week continuing resolution to reopen the government while negotiations on a border-security bill take place, according to a draft published by Axios. The offer appeared similar to one floated by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina over the weekend, which Trump rejected.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has moved to recall thousands more furloughed federal employees to work without pay in an effort to mitigate the shutdown's impact on the public—and, it seemed, forestall a mounting political backlash against the president. Polls released over the past several days show that Americans, by a wide margin, blame the president for a shutdown he once said he'd proudly own.

It was against this backdrop that Pelosi sent her letter on Wednesday, an effort to turn the screw ever tighter around the president and remind him of one key source of leverage she holds over him. He might have the power to keep the government closed. But she can effectively bar him from the Capitol, and deny him the best occasion he'll have all year to make his case to the public.

Trashy Robots

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 01:32 PM PST

There's nothing, it would seem, that Peter Kokis can't turn into a robot. The Brooklyn performance artist makes cyborgs out of 100 percent recycled materials—oftentimes salvaged from the trash. He builds the 170-pound costumes on his kitchen table. When he's done, Kokis parades through the streets, a veritable Transformer among mortals.

"I look for complexity in everyday objects," Kokis says in Aaron Craig's short documentary One Man's Trash. "I look at an object and see its potential."

Before making the film, Craig was familiar with Kokis and his unique passion. But it wasn't until he followed him around for a day that the filmmaker realized just how dedicated Kokis was to his art. According to Craig, they filmed on one of the hottest days of the summer. When the crew arrived, Kokis had all his windows closed and no air-conditioning to speak of. "It was easily 120 degrees inside his house," Craig told The Atlantic. "We were drenched in sweat while filming, but he was perfectly comfortable. He does it to have his body prepared for heat when he's inside the 170-pound suits."

During the shoot, Kokis told Craig that he planned to make robots for the rest of his life. "He has even lost relationships because he was given the choice between his robots and his girlfriend, and he chose the robots," Craig said. "She couldn't stand the heat."

Though it may be tempting to dismiss the robots as simply a quirky hobby, Craig views Kokis's art as an effort to spread awareness about sustainability.

"It opened our minds about how much we, as a community, are wasting," Craig said. "We might not all be able to make cool robots out of trash, but if we all put our minds together, we can figure out how to repurpose materials that would usually end up in the trash. If you think outside the box, we are capable of much more than we realize."

The Citizenship Question Isn’t Quite Dead Yet

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 12:44 PM PST

On Tuesday, a federal judge struck down the infamous citizenship question. Judge Jesse M. Furman, in the Southern District of New York, decided to block the Commerce Department from "adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire," a decision informed by what Furman found was clear evidence that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated federal law in providing conflicting and untruthful rationales about its potential inclusion. Furman's conclusion: The Trump administration misled Americans about the intent of the citizenship question, and willingly risked the integrity of the decennial census in order to push it through, as a political matter.

But the controversy over the question, fueled by President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric and fears that the census could be weaponized against marginalized communities, isn't over yet. The Supreme Court could still hear the case, and the seeds of distrust in communities skeptical about the question have already been sown.

The case before Judge Furman did not appear to be a terribly tricky one. When, in late 2017, the administration began making a public call to ask people about their citizenship—which is a question on a smaller annual survey, but not the decennial census—the story was that the Justice Department needed the question in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, since the "citizen voting-age population" is the main measure of the size of political districts.

But emails and official documents that emerged during lawsuits to stop the question's inclusion in the census revealed that Ross pushed for it and then sought rationale where he could to implement it. Despite the fact that the Justice Department already has citizenship data that has proved reliable, enforcement of the VRA became the main post hoc rationale for including the question on the next census.

From the outset, immigration and civil-rights groups were suspicious of the question. Per the Constitution, the census is intended to count all residents, regardless of citizenship. Activists reasoned that the citizenship question was a way to get around that requirement and was either intended to intimidate or target immigrant communities and undocumented immigrants, or would have that effect nonetheless. Many feared that reluctance to answer the question would lead to an undercount of immigrant families, and that administration officials knew of and welcomed that risk.

Scrutiny from the court basically confirmed all those fears. After dismissing internal reports that the question would surely lower response rates, Ross and his aides pushed the question anyway, and appeared to obfuscate the reasons for pursuing the question. In his decision, Furman stops just short of saying that Ross lied to Americans about the intent of the citizenship question and the data he received on its potential effects, but it's about as strong an implication as there can be.

Furman ruled that Ross violated multiple laws related to the conduct of the census and to how the executive branch can create and implement new rules. But on the plaintiffs' other claim, that Ross's intent was discriminatory, the court demurred, since Ross himself was saved from deposition by a Supreme Court stay. "It is impossible to know if they could have carried their burden to prove such discriminatory intent had they been allowed to depose Secretary Ross, as the Court had authorized last September," Furman wrote. The Supreme Court will take up the matter of whether or not Ross can be compelled to be deposed in February.

"We are disappointed and are still reviewing the ruling," says the DOJ spokesperson Kelly Laco. "Secretary Ross, the only person with legal authority over the census, reasonably decided to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census in response to the Department of Justice's request for better citizenship data, to protect voters against racial discrimination."

Civil-rights organizations, many of which submitted briefs on behalf of the immigration groups that filed suit against the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau, immediately celebrated. "The Trump administration violated the law by adding a question to the 2020 Census that will undoubtedly reduce participation by immigrants and people of color," said Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil-rights organization, in a statement. "We cannot afford to have millions of Latinos and other Americans missed in the nation's decennial count," added Arturo Vargas, the CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, in another statement.

Each of the groups that opposed the citizenship question called on Congress to remedy the situation for good by barring the Bureau from pursuing the question. The unspoken fear among those groups is the real possibility that Furman's decision is far from the last word on the issue. "This is a very encouraging development for those of us who support and are working towards a fair and accurate census, but the issue is not yet resolved," says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population and a consultant for the Leadership Conference. "Most observers agree that the lawsuits are likely to end up before the Supreme Court at some point."

[Read: The 2020 census is already in big trouble]

At this point, time is of the essence. The census has already run up against a gantlet of administrative issues, and it'll have to get the final forms to the federal printers by next summer. Even without the drama of the citizenship question, the official preparation process for this version—which will be the first online census—would be hectic.

The Trump administration would normally have to go through a lengthy appeals process to and through the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case that could go to the Supreme Court at some point, but it's likely that federal officials will request that the courts expedite a decisive review in the interest of getting the census done on time. One potential avenue, says Lowenthal, is expanding the scheduled Supreme Court proceedings on the issue of Ross's deposition, and using it as an endpoint for outstanding legal questions involving the administration of the census, including the citizenship question.

As Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress notes, if the question does get to a full Supreme Court review, it will be a major test for the independence of the conservative majority. "Furman's caution may serve [the plaintiffs] well in the long run," Millhiser writes, since "Republicans on the Supreme Court are extraordinarily hostile to claims that a public official acted with racist intent." They are more responsive to violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, which Furman found Ross had done. It would be difficult by jurisprudence alone to predict that the Supreme Court would overturn Furman's decision, but the fact that the citizenship question is Trump's own pet policy will certainly add pressure to the potential proceedings.

As Dara Lind writes at Vox, even if the federal government does not find its desired result in the Supreme Court, there still may be damage done. "News stories about what the administration might do tend to persist as rumors in immigrant communities even when the administration isn't actually doing it," Lind notes. Publicity about the citizenship question, the disinformation from Ross, and the clear anti-immigration bias from Trump and other authorities could have poisoned the well and reduced communities' already shaky faith in enumerators.

It's the Census Bureau's own responsibility to alleviate those problems. One of the largest parts of the 2020 census budget is for information and advertising campaigns designed to get low-response communities to take the census. But, thanks to the citizenship question, the effort will be a bit more difficult now. And that's without the prospect of a continued fight in courts, or the possibility of officials or Trump himself publicly casting doubt on the census and informally disrupting the advertising effort. All roads ahead make the 2020 census at base a little shakier, and increase the chances of major discrepancies or problems come next year. And that would appear to be by the Trump administration's design.

Natasha Bertrand contributed additional reporting to this article.

Go Ahead, Post the Stupid Photo of Yourself From 10 Years Ago

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 01:15 PM PST

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

Okay, bad news. Everything you do on the internet is tracked. Your information streams into massive databases that are then linked to one another. At least several companies have good models of your social networks, purchasing behavior, and, yes, your face. Your face 10 years ago and your face today.

Ten years ago, Facebook already had 15 billion photos in its database. As you uploaded pictures and tagged friends and added date and location data, the software got really, really good at recognizing people's faces. This facial-recognition capability is mirrored at other companies—and some, such as Amazon, sell it to whoever wants it. They do all this to more effectively show you things you are likely to buy, in the form of advertisements in a feed or product recommendations. That's literally how the internet works, and it goes to the very core of the new economy, as many smart people have been telling us for years, most recently Harvard Business School's Shoshana Zuboff in her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

[Conor Friedersdorf: The undemocratic spread of Big Brother]

Whew, okay. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about the #10yearchallenge, which has swept through Facebook (and Instagram) users. The deal is: You post a photo from 10 years ago and one from now. It's like viewing a painting of Cronus eating his children, but online.

At first it was all a game. Ha ha! Everyone is getting older!

But then our current reality began to sink in. Kate O'Neill, the founder of a tech-consulting firm, posted what she described in a later op-ed for Wired as a "sarcastic tweet."

O'Neill's larger point is the same as the one above: "Humans are the richest data sources for most of the technology emerging in the world," she writes. "We should know this, and proceed with due diligence and sophistication."

No doubt.

But here's that good news I promised: Whatever bad scenario these new photos could be used to support … has probably already happened. Facebook isn't building an age-progression machine-learning system; it almost certainly already has one. (Perhaps this is not good news.)

Researchers have been working hard on "age-invariant facial recognition" for years now, building a variety of datasets such as MORPH to help them do the work. To O'Neill's point, these data sets are usually quite small, but that's what academics generally have to work with. And still, there has been tremendous technical progress. For example, for a biometric security system using 16 years of photos, "the average subject can still be correctly verified at a false accept rate (FAR) of 0.01%."

[Read: The city of the future is a data-collecting machine]

But consider a platform that has access to many orders of magnitude more photos, as well as the most cutting-edge machine-learning systems and unending computation. I would bet that Facebook's systems go far beyond what O'Neill is suggesting. Facebook wants to do age-invariant facial recognition from all kinds of crazy angles and in video. Two frontal head shots is a task that their artificial-intelligence experts have almost certainly already solved.

You're not sticking it to the companies by refraining from this particular behavior. And the idea that you could prevent Facebook from modeling how you've aged or will age is downright misleading.

[Read: Facebook didn't sell your data, it gave it away]

Another way of putting it: There isn't some global corporate conspiracy to get you to post a photo of yourself from the old days and today. There has been a global corporate conspiracy to get you to post everything about yourself, continuously, for the past 15 years. Which many of us have done, providing the vast data sets that companies have already trained their neural networks with. If you think that not posting these two photos does anything to surveillance capitalism or the platforms that succeed through it, that's just not right.

And, geez, it's hard out there. If people derive some tiny measure of pleasure from seeing themselves and their friends back when they had hair and plump cheeks, then … I can't find it within myself to tell them: No, this one sliver of the problem of our time is just too much.

Theresa May Lives to Fight Another Day. But for What?

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 12:45 PM PST

LONDON—Less than 24 hours after suffering a historic defeat against her Brexit deal, British Prime Minister Theresa May survived another vote of no confidence on Wednesday, ensuring that she'll survive to fight another day.

But there is little cause for celebration: More than two years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, its lawmakers are still hopelessly divided. Questions remain over how, or even if, that departure should happen. There isn't a parliamentary majority to support the deal as it stands, nor are there enough lawmakers willing to countenance letting the country leave the EU without a deal.

Absent an alternative plan, however, none of that really matters—if a transitional deal with the EU is not approved by March 29, or if some other compromise is not found, then Britain will leave the bloc by default.

[Read: The Brexit deal's historic defeat]

To avoid this scenario, the British government needs a new strategy—and its options are limited. Whatever Britain's fate will be, it must be decided in the next couple of months. Here are the big questions that remain:

1. What will May do next?

In the wake of her Brexit deal being defeated on Tuesday, May told the House of Commons that she plans to hold cross-party talks with senior lawmakers to see if they can reach a "genuinely negotiable" compromise that can command Parliament's support.

Still, it's unclear just how far the prime minister is willing to go. Addressing lawmakers on Wednesday, May signaled that she would rule out a so-called soft Brexit preferred by some Labour lawmakers, which would see the country maintain closer links to the EU's trade rules and regulations after it formally leaves the bloc.

"As things stand right now, the prospects for some sort of cross-party approach to try and find their way out of this mess are pretty meager," John Springford, the deputy director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, told me. "It requires unprecedented cross-party work, which aren't really in character for either [the opposition leader] Jeremy Corbyn or for Theresa May."

While a new British consensus would be welcomed by the EU, which has repeatedly called on Britain to clarify its position, it almost certainly wouldn't lead to the reopening of negotiations over the transitional deal, which concluded late last year. The best London can hope for is to update the political declaration, a nonbinding part of the agreement that sets out the framework of the United Kingdom and the EU's future relationship.

[Read: Brexit crisis. Theresa May in trouble. Rinse. Repeat. ]

This means that some of the most controversial aspects of the deal, such as the Irish backstop—a mechanism designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland that some British lawmakers fear could could keep Britain beholden to EU trade rules and regulations indefinitely—would remain unchanged. Though French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that the EU might be willing to "make improvements on one or two things," substantial changes to the agreement are unlikely. "We've reached the maximum of what we could do with the deal and we won't, just to solve Britain's domestic political issues, stop defending European interests," Macron said.

2. Will Corbyn back a second Brexit referendum?

Now that a general election is off the cards—for now—the question facing Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, is what he plans to do next.

So far, he has resisted calls for him to swing the party's support behind the so-called People's Vote, a campaign that advocates for another referendum. A lifelong Euroskeptic, Corbyn is unlikely to pivot from his current strategy of simply opposing the government's Brexit plan.

But as support for a second vote increases, some Labour parliamentarians have begun voicing their impatience. "This is not the time for further pussyfooting around or hesitation by Labour," David Lammy, a Labour lawmaker and People's Vote advocate, said Tuesday in a statement. Calling for his party to actively campaign for a new referendum, he added, "Our supporters and members now need the opposition to act."

3. Will Britain leave the EU by March 29?

Under the EU Withdrawal Act, Britain will leave the EU on March 29 by default, with or without a deal. The vast majority are opposed to leaving without a deal—and have signaled their willingness to request an extension to Article 50, the EU's time-limited exit procedure, to prevent it. (Though May told the House of Commons on Tuesday that she does not believe the country should delay its exit from the EU, she crucially didn't rule out an Article 50 extension, either.)

Though prolonging the U.K.'s departure would require the unanimous consent of the EU's 27 other member states, the bloc is already treating this option as the most likely scenario. "What is apparent is that [May] is going to struggle to deliver Brexit by the 29th of March," Neena Gill, a Labour Party member of the European Parliament, told me. "An extension to July is a real possibility."

With or without an extension, Britain has few options: Leave the EU with May's negotiated deal (or a variation of it), leave the EU without a deal, or not to leave the EU at all.

"There are three paths," Henry Newman, the director of the London-based Open Europe, told me, "all of which seem impossible."

Trump's Chief Shutdown Negotiator Is Unknown to Most Americans

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 06:55 PM PST

The ongoing government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, has crystallized for many Americans that Washington skews more "day-care center" than "center of the free world." And as Republicans and Democrats alike address the furlough with all the sophistication of a playground brawl—dropping f-bombs, throwing "temper tantrums," and snubbing lunch invites—there is Shahira Knight, the adult encouraging everyone to play nice.

The press has appointed a handful of staffers as the "adults" in Donald Trump's administration, a classification meant to distinguish the few officials who have government expertise from the many who don't. But even some of those officials eventually surrender to the rhythms of this West Wing, especially as Trump chafes against their constraints and helps fuel rumors of their diminished standing. They call one another "morons." They form interoffice coalitions. They become "senior administration officials" for the reporters they profess to hate.

Knight is the rare exception. After nearly two years in Trump's White House, the 47-year-old White House director of legislative affairs, the president's chief advocate on Capitol Hill, has managed to evade the kind of credibility crises that consume her colleagues regularly. She's become a key character in Trump's circle even as she cuts the swampy profile his voters detest. And she's done so by ditching the playbook that has guided most officials in the administration, preferring conference calls with congressional aides to Fox & Friends appearances and prioritizing sketching out tax policy to gaming out who might be the next chief of staff.

[Peter Beinart: Nancy Pelosi is winning ]

The result is perhaps the quietest ascent to power within this White House, the unlikely story of a Trump staffer content with both influence and anonymity. It's a valuable quality, particularly as shutdown negotiations, such as they are, become more volatile by the day. According to more than a dozen current and former White House officials, lawmakers, and congressional aides, Knight is viewed as one of the only people who, three weeks into the closures, has maintained the respect of the president and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle—something that Trump's top shutdown lieutenants, such as Vice President Mike Pence, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and the senior adviser Jared Kushner, have struggled to match.

Knight, they say, may be the White House's only hope for ending the shutdown with a deal and not a national emergency. But as opportunities for compromise dwindle by the day, the thinking that good old-fashioned negotiating can solve the shutdown may be just short of wishful.

"If this ends in a way both sides are even somewhat happy with, it'll be mainly because of her," said one White House official who works closely with Knight and who, like most of the White House and congressional staffers I spoke with, requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

It was at former Chief of Staff John Kelly's personal urging last summer that Knight took the legislative-affairs job. At the time, she was on her way out of the White House. In June, she announced that she was leaving her post as deputy director of the National Economic Council for a banking-policy and lobbying group called the Clearing House. The move made sense: When Knight joined the administration, some close to her wondered when the woman known for her competence would tire of a White House known for—well, not that. They expected she would quickly return to the private sector, where she'd lobbied for Fidelity Investments for eight years before joining the administration at its start. Prior to that, she had spent nearly a decade as a senior policy staffer on Capitol Hill.

[Franklin Foer: The shutdown makes Trump's priorities painfully clear ]

"I was surprised when she went to the White House," former House Speaker John Boehner told me. The two worked closely together on the House Ways and Means Committee, where Knight served as a senior adviser to the then-chairman, Bill Thomas. "And then when she announced she was leaving the White House, I thought, 'Okay, that makes sense to me.'"

To Knight, too, the timing apparently felt right. Her first job within the administration was on the National Economic Council. She was conscripted by the then-chairman, Gary Cohn, to help pass tax reform, which Trump signed into law in December 2017. "After that, there was a sense of: What else do I have to accomplish here?" said one former senior White House official who worked closely with Knight.

But as is practically tradition in the Trump White House, an abrupt staff departure triggered a change of plans. In July, then-Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short announced that he was leaving the post to join a consulting firm and start a fellowship at the University of Virginia. There's never really a quiet time to leave the White House, but Short had abandoned ship at a particularly crucial moment: The administration was gearing up for what would become an all-consuming Supreme Court confirmation fight, and preparing for the final months of the midterm elections. And because Short was one of Trump's longest-serving officials, his absence was likely to feel acute.

Knight was as natural a successor as any. Her ties to the Hill long predated the administration, beginning with her climb in the early 2000s to staff director of Ways and Means, where she became well versed in the latticework of the tax code and helped shuttle through George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001.

Accordingly, she became a lifeline for lawmakers and the White House as Republicans drafted their overhaul of the tax code last year. Knight was valued not only for her policy know-how, but also for her familiarity with critical lawmakers and aides, which her colleagues lacked. Tax reform remains the administration's most significant legislative achievement, and Trump saw Knight as one of its guides. "The president gained a tremendous amount of trust in her after that," another White House official who works closely with Knight told me.

[Read: The impact of the government shutdown is about to snowball]

"He viewed her as, like, this brainiac that could come in and out-argue everyone on tax policy … like his pet genius," the former senior White House official recalled. "We'd be in the Oval and she'd be getting really deep in the weeds on something. And Trump would just smile and look at everyone else like, 'She's good, right?'"

But whereas many officials in Trump's orbit craved the limelight, Knight cowered from it. During the Oval Office signing ceremony for tax reform, Cohn recalled, he spotted Knight standing at the back of the room, hidden from view behind the cameras. "She has no ego to check," Cohn told me. "It's a very rare quality in Washington."

This made the legislative-affairs job as defined by Short a difficult sell for Knight. During his tenure, Short had elevated the typically behind-the-scenes role to a higher-profile one that became almost an extension of the communications department. He was accessible to reporters and regularly appeared on the Sunday shows to tout the administration's legislative agenda. Anonymous, he was not.

When Kelly pitched Knight on succeeding Short, she articulated a different vision for the role. "I was pretty excited about it. I'm obviously a creature of the Hill," Knight told me. "But the nature of this job requires you to be an honest broker, and it requires you to be a bit more behind the scenes … It depends on relationships and trust and people knowing you're getting and giving honest feedback." To Knight, trumpeting the president's message on cable news didn't seem like the best strategy for engaging in good-faith negotiations with lawmakers. Kelly agreed.

Congressional aides long close to Knight told me the challenges of negotiating and communicating on behalf of a famously mercurial president quickly became clear to her in the legislative-affairs job. In addition, they said, Knight had to contend with multiple White House officials who, when it came to pushing their respective pet projects, often bypassed her team to communicate directly with lawmakers and aides. "There are a lot of voices on the Hill for the administration, and they're not always well coordinated," said a former House GOP leadership aide who recently left Capitol Hill. "For us, the goal was to figure out that just because someone is a senior adviser to the president [doesn't] mean they speak for the president."

[Read: Why federal workers still have to show up even if they're not being paid ]

Through the fall, Knight began tailoring her communication strategy to satisfy both her whim-driven boss and lawmakers desperate for clarity. She learned how to discern the difference between what she calls Trump's "hard yes" and "soft yes," and how to hedge during negotiations on the Hill without sacrificing authority.

Lawmakers and aides frequently gripe about the president's opacity during times of crisis; they're often unsure about what Trump wants. This is exacerbated, they say, by the impression of multiple competing agendas within the White House. But Knight is "always extremely careful to make clear when she's speaking for [Trump] and him alone," the former leadership aide said.

Congressional sources I spoke with, both Republican and Democrat, also said they trust Knight's interpretation of where the president stands on any given issue at any given time. "When she says, 'This is what the president wants,' he may change his mind later, but you can take her at her word in that moment," a senior House GOP leadership aide told me. "A lot of West Wing folks are trying to interpret or guess what the president wants, but I think people here feel most comfortable when they hear it from her."

All of this has evidently served Knight well over the course of the shutdown, especially as officials as senior as Pence have struggled to convey Trump's shifting positions on how much money he wants for his border wall and whether he's inching closer to declaring a national emergency as an exit strategy.

"Shahira is an indispensable asset to this administration," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told me in a statement. "She is constantly engaged with my team on all issues before the Senate and has been working hard behind the scenes during this Democrat shutdown."

Democratic and Republican aides alike told me that their reliance on Knight as a Trump interpreter has increased as the shutdown has gone on and as their trust in other negotiators such as Kushner and Pence has dwindled. But having a respected staffer, no matter how experienced or well connected, in the middle could matter next to nothing with the president and Democratic leaders both showing little appetite for a genuine compromise.

[Read: Why hasn't Trump folded? ]

If Knight can't facilitate a deal, current and former congressional aides close to her said they wondered at what point she'd tire of it all, having transitioned from writing high-stakes policy in a unified government to navigating the politics and personalities of a bitterly divided one. Those sources also noted that Knight has never identified personally with Trumpism, meaning shutting down the government over a border wall is probably not something that, unlike the president, she was "proud" to do. "The folks she's most used to dealing with are people in the center. In [legislative] affairs, you're dealing with … people more on the ideological edges," said the former House GOP aide close to her. "That's the biggest challenge she's had."

But one clue to Knight's longevity in both Washington and the Trump administration is how she doesn't let on about her true feelings on any particular policy matter. "The difference between Shahira and almost everyone else in the Trump White House is that she truly loves being a staffer. She's not trying to be a principal," the former senior White House official told me.

On our brief call, Knight was positive about her experience working in the White House, praising the president's accessibility and saying the only downsides to her role are "the hours and the time. It's just all-consuming."

And yet when I asked Knight if she was happy with how her team has handled the shutdown so far, she let out a sigh. A White House press official who was on the call quickly interjected. The official asked if the answer could be off the record, and then whether we could skip the the topic altogether.

I said no, that it was a pretty basic question.

Knight cut back in. "You know, I do think the team has handled it well," she said. "What the team has communicated particularly well is that there is a crisis, and that the president cares deeply about it. And I'll just leave it at that." It didn't sound like the kind of triumphant answer she might have given after, say, the passage of tax reform.

[Read: Lindsey Graham's shifting sands on the shutdown]

There's something to be said, though, for surviving the first two years of the Trump administration—maintaining not only employment, but also the respect and praise of those in Washington who knew you before joined the team. But whether Knight can keep that record is as open a question as ever. As Knight likely knows well, perhaps the only constant in Trump's White House is its unpredictability.

I asked Boehner what advice he'd give his old associate for navigating the yet-unknown while trying to remain the adult in the room. "Good luck," he said with a chuckle. "Good luck."

Photos From the 2019 Dakar Rally

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 12:09 PM PST

With a ceremonial start in Lima, Peru, on January 7, a group of 334 competitors started the 41st annual Dakar Rally: a 10-day, 3,000-mile (5,000 kilometer) off-roading adventure held exclusively in Peru this year. The vehicles—which include specialized cars, trucks, motorcycles, and quad bikes—are currently on stage 9 of 10 stages that travel south to Tacna, then back to Lima on January 17. Here is a look at Dakar 2019 in progress, as teams race to the finish line.

Facebook Users Still Don’t Know How Facebook Works

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 02:07 PM PST

After all the scandals and hubbub and congressional testimony and mea culpas in Facebook's nearly 15 years of existence, one would think that its users would have a pretty firm grasp on how the business works.

Surely, users know that Facebook uses information about their behaviors and friendships to deduce a constantly updating list of their interests. This detailed information about people constitutes Facebook's competitive advantage: If it knows what people like, it can put ads in front of them that are likely to result in purchases.

But, no—a new Pew study indicates that after all this time, a large majority of users still don't know that Facebook compiles this kind of information.

Pew researchers called up almost a thousand Americans and asked them if they knew about the list of "traits and interests" that Facebook keeps for almost all active users. The company provides users easy access to it—you can see your own list here—yet 74 percent of respondents to the survey said they did not know about the list's existence.

Furthermore, 51 percent of those surveyed said they were "not comfortable with Facebook compiling this information."

[Read: Facebook didn't sell your data; it gave it away]

This survey might help explain why old news like the Cambridge Analytica scandal could command such massive attention last year. There are still literally hundreds of millions of users domestically and abroad who use Facebook the product, but don't understand the way Facebook the company slices up their data to make them better advertising targets.

Facebook has 242 million North American users, and if 50 percent of them would feel uncomfortable with Facebook's core business practice, then that's a lot of potentially angry people.

And if that's the case, just wait until they find out how location data is used or how custom audiences work, or that any company that has lured you to its website or collected your email somehow can retarget you with ads.

"We want people to understand how our ad settings and controls work. That means better ads for people," Facebook's Joe Osborne said in an emailed statement. "While we and the rest of the online ad industry need to do more to educate people on how interest-based advertising works and how we protect people's information, we welcome conversations about transparency and control."

Why Would Bill Barr Even Want to Be Attorney General?

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 10:07 AM PST

When nominees for Cabinet jobs come before the Senate, the burning question is often how they would handle a particular policy matter. But in the case of Bill Barr, President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, that question was answered before the hearings began, when Barr said in prepared remarks that he believes Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be allowed to complete his work.

That meant the single biggest mystery looming over Tuesday's hearing was less political than metaphysical: Why would Barr want the job? It's been clear since at least the summer of 2017 that Trump is an impossible boss, liable to pressure his underlings into unethical behavior and to berate them publicly if they refuse. Moreover, it's hard to think of any Trump officials other than former Defense Secretary James Mattis who have emerged from the administration with their reputation unharmed.

Senator Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, asked Barr directly why he wants the job.

"Well, because I love the [Justice] Department and all its components, including the FBI," Barr said. "I think they're critical institutions that are essential to preserving the rule of law, which is the heartbeat of this country … I feel that I'm in a position in life where I can provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence and reputation of the department."

[Read: The inadvisable president]

That drily delivered answer contains a great deal of meat. It's impossible to read his statements about rule of law and the "independence and reputation" of the Justice Department as anything other than an implicit rebuke of Trump, who has tried to railroad the department into prosecuting political adversaries and overriding ethical recommendations; of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resisted Trump's biggest pressures but saw DOJ take a steep decline in esteem; and of Matt Whitaker, the political apparatchik who's now the acting attorney general.

Barr came across, during the hearing, as the sort of Washington figure who holds a near-religious reverence for the Justice Department. Not only did Barr previously serve as attorney general, late in George H. W. Bush's presidency, but he also has a long list of relations who work or have worked at the department—as well as an 8-year-old grandson who, he quipped, "will someday be in the Department of Justice."

Barr's veneration for the DOJ seems to be a powerful force in his desire to take the job again. He may also nurse the same ambition as many people who have held powerful jobs: the desire to hold them again. Being attorney general is a plum position, and whatever caveats might apply in the Trump administration, people want Cabinet roles.

Barr's paeans to the rule of law and independence of the Justice Department also suggest he might feel some of the same sense of duty to protect the country from Trump that compelled Mattis to serve, despite his misgivings. Perhaps Barr harbors dreams of being a modern-day Elliot Richardson, the attorney general who stood up to Richard Nixon and resigned rather than fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Barr did tell senators he'd resign before doing something illegal, but the prospect of martyrdom is an unlikely reason to take a job.

Like Mattis, Barr shows little evidence of being a real Trumpist. His interest in the rule of law is enough evidence of that, as is his service to Bush, a president with few if any similarities to Trump. Barr is a conservative Republican in the old mold, but Trump is not. On Tuesday, Barr praised Mueller as a man of impeccable integrity and said the special counsel would not take part in a witch hunt (though Barr allowed that Trump might feel persecuted, since he is the one under investigation).

The one exception in Barr's recent past is the unsolicited memo that he submitted to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein criticizing one interpretation of the law on obstruction of justice, related to the Mueller probe. Barr tried to write the memo off as a speculative interpretation based on little real knowledge of Mueller's view of obstruction of justice—as though his input carried only the weight of an obscure legal blogger and not a former attorney general.

Barr told the senators that he had met Trump for the first time only when the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, approached him about possibly serving as Trump's personal attorney. Barr said that he agreed to meet the president but had no intention of taking the job.

[Read: Bill Barr breaks with Trump on the Mueller probe]

"My wife and I were sort of looking forward to a bit of respite, and I didn't want to put my head into that meat grinder," he explained. Yet while defending the president personally might be even harder than serving as his attorney general, that sentiment suggests Barr has a good sense of what he's in for. He also said he's told younger people that they'd be unwise to take the attorney-general job if they have future political ambitions, and said he was only doing so because he was at the end of his career.

"It might give me pause if I were 45 or 50 years old but it doesn't give me pause right now," he said, adding in a Freudian slip: "I had a very good life—I have a very good life."

If there is no obvious answer to why Barr would take the attorney-general job, there's also no clear explanation for why he thinks he'll be able to resist the gravitational pull of Donald Trump better than anyone else in the president's orbit.

"I am not going to do anything that I think is wrong, and I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong, by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the president," Barr said.

Given the president's track record, Barr will have a chance to test that soon enough.

Letters: More Unthinkable Moments

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 10:04 AM PST

Unthinkable: 50 Moments That Define an Improbable Presidency

This week marks the halfway point of Donald Trump's presidency. "Like many Americans, we sometimes find the velocity of chaos unmanageable," Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, wrote in his introduction to a special project taking stock of Trump's first two years as president. "So we decided to pause for a moment and analyze 50 of the most improbable, norm-bending, and destructive incidents of this presidency to date."

We asked readers: Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list?

Here's how readers responded.

Some readers thought the list should include moments from the campaign trail:

"The list doesn't address candidate Trump," wrote Steven Coleman, of Townsend, Massachusetts, "but in some ways that list is even more worrying, because it demonstrates just how ugly the mood in our country has become" when people vote for a candidate "who suggests gun rights supporters could consider assassinating Hillary Clinton if she is elected."

Theodore A. Goldbergh of New York City cited Trump's likening "his attendance at a military-themed boarding school paid for by his father to actual military service" as an unthinkable moment.

To Elinor Dalessandro of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, Trump's "single most egregious and appalling stunt" was his mocking of a reporter with a physical disability, in 2015. "How that didn't abruptly upend his run will always remain a source of profound sadness and shock at the lack of humanity in so many," Dalessandro wrote.

As president, readers pointed out, Trump's disparagement of his perceived opponents continued:

In discussing the government shutdown, Harold Norman of Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote, Trump "notes that government workers are Democrats, which somehow makes it okay to put them out of work."

Scott Brown of Carmel Valley, California, said:

My specific addition would be his accusation that Obama bugged him late in 2016. I remember the distinct feeling of being through the looking glass when I read it. It also introduced we West Coasters to the phenomenon of waking up, checking your phone, and getting the distinct impression that the world is on fire.

Several readers commented on Trump's impact on international relations:

"Somewhere in the next 50 fumbles," said Lenny Smith of Clarksboro, New Jersey, "we should include the rude pushing-aside of the prime minister of Montenegro so Trump could be in the spotlight."

"To me, the biggest damage may be the abandoned treaties and NATO support," argued Paul David Musgrave of McDade, Texas. "The world leaders know Trump is a buffoon, no surprise there. But the lesson that will hurt the U.S.A. maybe forever is that we are no longer trustworthy. Regardless of what happens to Trump or his successors, the simple fact remains that the American voters can elect a moron at any time, who can wreak havoc on any agreement. So why bother to negotiate treaties?

"That damage has occurred and is irrevocable," Musgrave continued. "I am sad for my country's ruined reputation."

"What about when the president invited the Russian ambassador, his entourage, and Russian press (disallowing American press) into the Oval Office, disparaged just-fired FBI Director James Comey, and blabbed state secrets?" asked Vicki Brown of Superior, Montana.

Jamie Alley of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, wrote:

As a Canadian reader of the The Atlantic, here are three more unthinkables.

  1. Trump calls Canada a national-security threat as justification for his tariffs on steel and aluminum, causing havoc in cross-border trade and resulting in huge economic pain to both countries.
  2. A top Trump official says there's a "special place in hell" for the Canadian prime minister. No correction from the president. Imagine if the situation had been reversed. All Trudeau said was that he would always act in the interest of Canadians.
  3. After the U.S. requested that Canada arrest the Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei, causing China to retaliate by arresting Canadians in China, Trump says he might use the Huawei executive as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, leaving Canada out to dry for living up to our extradition treaty obligations.

"As an Australian," Ian Burns wrote, "I would add the disgraceful manner in which Trump treated our then–prime minister on their first telephone call."

And one reader in England recalled the president's 2018 visit there:

Last summer on his visit to England, we witnessed Mr. Trump's arrogant and rude treatment of an elderly Englishwoman in her 90s.

This lady was kept waiting for the best part of 20 minutes as she stood alone in blazing heat waiting for the arrival of her guest who was joining her for afternoon tea.

Unfortunately, she had to greet Mr. Trump alone as no other member of her family would agree to meet him. We all felt sorry for her, Queen Elizabeth II, putting on a brave face and having to be stoical as usual.

One reader pointed to the president's reliance on Fox News for advice:

Colin Murphy of Cleveland, Ohio, wrote:

The relationship between the president and Fox News is as astounding as it is troublesome. From tweeting reactions to Fox & Friends segments in real time, to fielding late-night calls from Sean Hannity, to hiring Bill Shine as communications director, to engineering a government shutdown after criticism from its commentators. The examples that range from seemingly benign to crisis-inducing have become a part of our daily lives, but if the integration of the White House and a major media organization transitions from unthinkable to accepted practice, the task of keeping the voting populace informed will be forever complicated.

One reader argued that the list would be better off focusing not on Trump, but on his congressional allies:

According to John Crusius of Seattle, Washington:

Even more important, and even more unthinkable (although not attributable to this presidency), are the facts that virtually no Republican in Congress has challenged this president when any of these 50 events have occurred, and that 90 percent of the Republican Party still supports this president, despite public awareness of these 50 events. We'll call these unthinkable item numbers zero-a and zero-b in this American crisis.

A number of readers expanded on the president's response to national disasters beyond Puerto Rico:

"In New Bern, North Carolina," Ann Ringland wrote, "as he was looking at the aftermath of the hurricane, Trump said to a homeowner with a big boat in his front yard, 'At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.'

"I am from North Carolina," said Ringland, who lives in Durham, "and this comment made me want to throw up. North Carolina is still recovering, and people's lives are forever changed."

Christine Megorden of Long Beach, California, recalled, "When the president blamed California's forest management for the devastating Camp and Woolsey fires. And threatened to deny aid and relief to citizens who had just lost everything. Even though the majority of the burn areas were on federal land. Even though his own administration had cut funding for this federal land. And all of Finland (including the president!) was bewildered by his suggestion we could avoid these fires by raking leaves."

Amy J. Cohen of Los Angeles, California, cited Trump's recent threat "to rob states of disaster funds to fulfill a campaign promise."

Finally, a reader urged us to remember the time the president insulted pet owners:

Marsha Tupper of Kanab, Utah, called back to "when Donald Trump proclaimed that the Mike Pence family bringing their pets to Washington, D.C., was 'low class' and 'embarrassing.'"

"There are so many animal lovers in this country," she wrote, "who will never forget this."

Join the Conversation

Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list? Email us at letters@theatlantic.com with the subject line "Unthinkable," and include your full name, city, and state. Or tweet using #TrumpUnthinkable.

Barr May Do Exactly What Trump Wants

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 11:24 AM PST

The confirmation hearing for William Barr went a lot better than the one for Jeff Sessions.

In fairness, that's not a very high standard. The former Alabama senator made false statements to the Senate about his contacts with Russia, was forced to admit he had misled the public about his civil-rights record, and insisted he had "done no research" into whether the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 election.

Barr was far better prepared to take on the questions raised by his appointment as attorney general. Sessions resigned last November, after two years of being berated by President Donald Trump for recusing himself from the federal investigation into Russian interference. Trump's appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general was arguably unconstitutional; Whitaker, a Trump loyalist with a questionable past, did not occupy a Senate-confirmed position at the time of his appointment. Compared with his predecessors, then, Barr seems like an improvement.

After all, Barr said he would not fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller without cause. He told the Senate that the inquiry, which has led to the convictions of several of Trump's former advisers, was not a "witch hunt," as the president has insisted. He told senators that he would be "independent" and would "not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong."

[Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes: The real significance of the FBI's probe into Trump]

In a normal administration, confirmation of Cabinet members would be a question of qualifications, temperament, and policy views. But with Trump, who has already been implicated in felonies by his former attorney, and who has sought on multiple occasions to stymie criminal investigations into his campaign and his associates, and who has flagrantly abused the powers of his office for personal and political gain, the main question of significance is whether a nominee would resist an order from the president to violate the law or the Constitution. That question takes on particular importance for a prospective attorney general, not only because it would be his responsibility to ensure equality under the law, but also because Trump views the office as key to protecting himself and his cohorts from legal consequences.

Here, Barr's record and testimony are less reassuring than they might at first appear. There's the 19-page memo describing the special-counsel inquiry as "fatally misconceived" that Barr wrote last June and personally sent to Trump's attorneys. There's the fact that Barr refused to commit to recusing himself from the Russia investigation if directed to do so by Justice Department ethics officials, as Sessions did once his misleading testimony to the Senate was exposed. This is no small question—Whitaker similarly refused to recuse himself after being advised to do so because of his prior attacks on the Mueller investigation, raising questions about whether his appointment was intended to provide the president and his defense attorneys with a window into Mueller's work. But Whitaker's ability to hamper the special-counsel inquiry was limited by his obvious lack of qualifications for the job, media scrutiny of his past, and the widespread perception that he was little more than a cat's paw for the president.

There are fewer questions about Barr's qualifications. After all, he used to be attorney general. Unlike Whitaker, he is well regarded as a civil servant by the bipartisan community of Justice Department alumni. And unlike Sessions, he was no Trump-campaign surrogate, and his hearing displayed none of the performative sycophancy that Trump demands from his advisers.

[Benjamin Wittes: As good an attorney general as we're likely to get]

That should be reassuring. But it also means that, should Barr decide to interfere with or otherwise hamper the investigations into the president, or order inquiries into the president's political enemies, he will have far more legitimacy to do so. Barr told The New York Times in 2017 that the Justice Department could be "abdicating its responsibility" by not pursuing further investigations into Trump's 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, whom Trump publicly threatened to imprison. Elaborate conspiracy theories about Clintonian crimes remain a staple of Fox News programming, but there's little evidence of any wrongdoing.

Barr told the Senate Tuesday that he was merely saying that "whatever the standard is for launching an investigation, it should be dealt with evenhandedly." In light of all the evidence that has emerged about the Trump team seeking the Russian government's aid in defeating Clinton, Barr's remarks don't sound evenhanded at all. They sound like he's justifying Trump's using the Justice Department for political persecution.

Barr is also no stranger to helping presidents shield themselves from federal inquiries. In 1992, he supported President George H. W. Bush's decision to pardon six people for crimes, including obstruction of justice, in the Iran-Contra investigation, which looked into whether the Reagan administration, in which Bush had served as vice president, illegally traded arms with Iran to fund right-wing paramilitaries in Central America.

One of Bush's justifications for the pardons was that the "common denominator of their motivation—whether their actions were right or wrong—was patriotism." That is an odious rationale—patriotism as a blanket excuse for lawbreaking would condone any number of atrocities. It is hardly a stretch to imagine Trump using the same rationale to pardon loyalists for refusing to cooperate with Mueller. Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh said the pardons demonstrated "that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office—deliberately abusing the public trust without consequence." The pardons were not merely rewards for "patriotism," as the president insisted, Walsh said, but an attempt to prevent the investigation from implicating Bush himself.

[Read: Bill Barr breaks with Trump on Mueller probe]

Barr was asked during his confirmation hearing Tuesday whether a president could "lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient's promise to not incriminate him." Barr said that would "be a crime." But the exact phrasing leaves open the possibility that Trump could abuse his pardon power to prevent associates from testifying against him—as long as no explicit promise was made. The template for that approach would be the Iran-Contra pardons that Barr himself supported.

Taken as a whole, Barr's testimony is less comforting than it seemed. Barr is a respected party elder who possesses the legitimacy, legal acumen, and ideological convictions to shield the president and undermine the rule of law without committing the sort of ham-handed errors that could turn the public or Congress further against Trump. If Trump's aim was to choose an attorney general who would protect him without igniting a massive public backlash, he may have made the best possible choice.

Barr has said he won't be bullied into being a Trump crony. But that doesn't mean he won't do exactly what Trump wants him to do. It might just mean he doesn't need to be bullied into it. For the sake of American democracy, and the rule of law, I hope that's wrong.

‘Intensive’ Parenting Is Now the Norm in America

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 09:46 AM PST

Supervised, enriching playtime. Frequent conversations about thoughts and feelings. Patient, well-reasoned explanations of household rules. And extracurriculars. Lots and lots of extracurriculars.

These are the oft-stereotyped hallmarks of a parenting style that has been common in upper-middle-class households for at least a generation. But according to a recent survey, this child-rearing philosophy now has a much broader appeal, one that holds across race and class. The survey, which polled roughly 3,600 parents of children ages 8 to 10 who were demographically and economically representative of the national population, found evidence that hands-on parenting is not just what the well-off practice—it's what everyone aspires to.

Intensive is the adjective that researchers, including Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who published the survey results late last year, use to describe this model of raising kids. It's difficult to nail down precisely when it became the standard that so many American parents hold themselves to, but its approach seems built for an era of widening economic inequality, in which the downsides of a child falling behind economically are the largest they've been in generations.

[Read: How well-intentioned white families can perpetuate racism]

Intensive parenting was first identified as a middle-class phenomenon, most notably by the sociologists Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively. Lareau in particular called the approach "concerted cultivation" and contrasted it with a vision of parenting she labeled "the accomplishment of natural growth," which entails much less parental involvement and which she found to be more common among working-class and poorer parents. A big lingering question since then has been why these class differences exist: Did poorer families have different notions of what makes for good parenting, or did they simply lack the resources to practice the parenting styles they believed would be better?

What's useful about Ishizuka's survey data is they suggest that even if parenting style differs by class, parenting attitudes—what parents think they should do—currently don't. Jessica McCrory Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies parenting and has written about it for The Atlantic, explained in an email why she thinks this new study (which she was not involved in) is significant: "If parents from different social class backgrounds are engaging in different parenting practices … it's not because those parents value different parenting practices," she wrote. "Instead, there must be some other reason."

Because intensive parenting requires an abundance of time and money, the reason is likely that some families have more resources than others. "Poverty not only limits parents' ability to pay for music lessons, for example, but is also a major source of stress that can influence parents' energy, attention, and patience when interacting with children," Ishizuka told me.

Academic researchers have traced the origins of intensive parenting to the mid-20th century. But the timing of how it spread is somewhat uncertain: Ishizuka said there unfortunately aren't historical survey data showing "how pervasive cultural norms of intensive parenting were among parents of different social classes and when they may have diffused."

A plausible history of the past couple decades of American parenting, though, is that a critical mass of families with sufficient means started engaging in intensive parenting, and then everyone else followed. "That would be consistent with prior research on cultural shifts, which have shown that elite culture gradually becomes mass culture," Calarco explained.

Intensive parenting is a style of child-rearing fit for an age of inequality, indicative of a stratified past, present, and future. The past: As some social scientists have theorized, the tilt toward intensive parenting originated at least in part from parents' anxieties about their children competing for education and jobs. (The more extracurriculars, the logic of intensive parenting goes, the better the odds of getting into an excellent college and of securing one of the high-paying jobs that America cordons off for the best-credentialed.) The present: As Ishizuka described, intensive parenting is an ideal that's currently out of reach for many families. And the future: Practiced as it is by some families but not others, it might replicate—or even widen—inequities in future generations.

Many children surely benefit from being raised like this—concerted cultivation can serve them well later in life, teaching them how to manage their time and assert their individuality. But heavily involved parenting can at the same time stunt kids' sense of self-reliance, and overcommitted after-school schedules can leave them exhausted. Also, there is some evidence that parents who overdo it increase the risk that their children will grow up to be depressed and less satisfied with life. And on the parents' side, the intensive ideal can lead parents—particularly mothers—to fear that they aren't doing enough to give their child the best future possible.

In part because of the strain that intensive child-rearing puts on parents and kids, some parents have started moving away from the practice and toward free-range parenting, a hands-off child-rearing philosophy that recommends against constant monitoring (and that isn't unlike "the accomplishment of natural growth").

But as Calarco has pointed out, free-range parenting comes with a double standard: When whiter, more affluent parents practice it, it's welcomed as a corrective to more overbearing approaches, but when poorer parents and parents of color practice it, it can be viewed as neglectful. Which means free-range parenting might be rooted in inequality, just like the philosophy that it's a reaction to.

The Joyce Carol Oates Story That Shares DNA With 'Cat Person’

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 09:47 AM PST

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

In December 2017, The New Yorker published "Cat Person," an enigmatically titled story that went viral as almost no other work of short fiction has managed to do. The tale of a flirtation lived mostly through text message, culminating in a one-night stand that veers from disappointing to frightening and degrading, uncannily portrayed the world of American dating—especially for younger women, and especially in the era of #MeToo. "Cat Person" captured the halting cadence of digital communication, the hazy negotiation of boundaries and consent, and the way sex between strangers can heighten isolation. It seemed to be the story everyone needed to read that year, ultimately generating more than 85,000 Facebook comments. It also produced an intense amount of interest in Kristen Roupenian, the virtually unknown writer of the piece.

This week, Roupenian debuts her collection, You Know You Want This, offering the public the first sustained look at her literary capacities. In a conversation for this series, she discussed the short story that helped inspire "Cat Person": Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Both stories read as heightened fairy tales in which young protagonists seek out sex and romance in a world that poses supreme dangers to women. And both feature a male antagonist who at first seems friendly, attractive, and appealing—but whose mask slowly slips off, instilling horror in the reader. Reflecting on Oates's masterful opening paragraph, Roupenian also discussed how the sudden fame of "Cat Person" derailed her life, with hordes of strangers suddenly striving to connect with her. The experience had eerie parallels to Oates's story, in which a man notices a woman in a moment of unguarded vulnerability, and then feels she owes him her returned attention.

One of the stories in You Know You Want This is, in fact, a direct homage to Oates: A 12-year-old girl meets a handsome stranger whose interest in Charles Manson's warped folk songs does not at first seem to be a red flag. Another sees a couple rekindle their love life when they realize their couch surfer can hear them having sex—a coy, voyeuristic premise that moves into a nightmarish examination of sexual power dynamics. The collection's 12 stories mine the territory between intimacy and danger, and between fantasy and reality.

Kristen Roupenian's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Colorado Review, and other publications. She spoke to me by phone.

Kristen Roupenian: I first read "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" in 10th-grade English class. It was the first truly terrifying story I read within the context of school, and it made a huge impression on me. What I remember most is the intensity: this visceral sense of fear, but also confusion, as though the story was somehow moving too fast, going over my head, and I couldn't quite get it all.

The appeal must have been, in part, because I was 15 years old—the same age as Connie, the protagonist. The story masterfully dramatizes the horrors of being a young woman coming into adolescence, all those underlying anxieties and fears. And the moral of the story is: If you have sex, you will be murdered.

You can't be a teenager in the world—a teenage girl at least—without having the sense that sex and death are somehow intertwined. We all hear stories that reinforce how dangerous the world is for young women. In its way, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is the literary version of one of those cautionary tales. The story begins as short stories are famously supposed to, compressing its thematic concerns into the very first paragraph. "Her name was Connie," it begins.

She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. "Stop gawking at yourself, who are you? You think you're so pretty?" she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: She knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.

The first thing we get is a description of a girl who's known for looking into mirrors. That already feels ominous, because we know from fairy tales that girls who look into mirrors often reach bad ends. But it's also perfect, because this story is so much about questions of who's looking, and who's watching, and how that gaze can be protective or damaging.

After all, it's not just that Connie's mom often catches her peering into mirrors to see herself. Her whole world functions like a kind of mirror. I love the line "checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right," just as a way to describe the way you can look into someone's face to see their reaction to you—as a teenage girl, that insight rang so true. It's also a wonderful detail, because it shows Connie's narcissism. Even when she's looking into other people's faces, she sees mostly herself.

Connie has a theory for why her mom is on her case all the time: She's jealous. But what Connie doesn't know—and what a mom who has been young and pretty would know—is that to be young and pretty is also to be in danger. Connie is about to find that out. Because even though all she can see is her own beauty, there is a moment when another perspective breaks through. It happens later, as she's walking from the local diner out to some boy's car:

On the way Connie couldn't help but let her eyes wander over the windshields and faces all around her, her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music. She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive, and just at that moment she happened to glance at a face just a few feet from hers. It was a boy with shaggy black hair … He stared at her and then his lips widened into a grin.

Briefly, she lets go of her self-consciousness, really just experiencing the pure pleasure of being alive in her body. And that is the moment she first sees Arnold Friend, the dangerous stalker who will later show up at her house when she's alone. She notices him noticing her, and it breaks the dream. Arnold's attention is a frightening thing. It's as if he's saying: "I noticed you, it's your fault, and now you owe me."

There's a story in my collection, "Look at Your Game, Girl," that I wrote directly modeled on "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" In an early draft, it was even dedicated to Joyce Carol Oates. But though I knew that I was influenced by Oates's story when I wrote "Look at Your Game, Girl," it was not until this morning that I looked back and saw how much its influence is all over "Cat Person," too.

There are some identical moments. There's a moment of horror in Oates's story where [Connie] realizes Arnold Friend is not a teenager like he's pretending to be—that he, up close, looks more like a 30-year-old man. Yes, he's wearing the right boots and wearing cool sunglasses and he knows the words to all the songs. He even, in a kind of supernatural way, knows the names of all her friends, and where her parents have gone that Sunday afternoon. All these things should signify safety, but they don't. In this context, they signify danger.

That's a huge theme in "Cat Person." Not to give the game away, but that's in part where the title comes from. There are all these signifiers that are supposed to be comforting: You like cats, you like the same music as me, you make good jokes. We want these things to signify safety, but we're not sure that they do. Both stories are about the moment you realize that the thing you'd thought was a face is actually a mask—that moment of terror.

The similarities between the two stories were not part of a conscious process. The moment you think you know what you're saying with a story, you're doomed. You have to have the faith that all the things that you've read and thought and experienced will go into some inaccessible part of your brain, get tangled and mixed and churned up, and then come out the other side. I think most people don't actually have much control over that aspect of writing. The best things about any story will surprise you, and though you'll be able to track them down later, in retrospect, you never quite know where you're headed at the time—at least I don't.

[Read more: 'Cat Person' and the impulse to undermine women's fiction]

I first read Oates's story when I was 15, and I was 30 by the time I decided I wanted to try to write seriously. For a long time, I didn't really want to do it. I feared I was somehow a lazy person, because all I wanted was to read for four hours a day without having to talk about it.

But then, at the last minute, something happened in my brain, which was a funny surprise to me: I started to want to write. Looking back, it was wonderful to suddenly want something so much—enough to know that I would orient my life around it, even though I had no expectation or guarantee that anyone would ever care. Other people's reactions were less important than the fact that I'd found what I wanted to do.

For me, that was the transition between reader and writer. But then, there was the transition between being a writer and being a Writer, which took place when "Cat Person" was published. It happened both over the course of a weekend and also over a year, and it was hugely dislocating. It felt annihilating to have all these eyes suddenly swivel towards you. I would not say these eyes swiveled towards the story. The story is a story, and it exists outside of me. I created something and put it out into the world, and I'm happy for it to be a thing that's in the world. But that's not what being a Writer is, with a capital w. It also involves giving up some piece of yourself—with eyes trained on you, and people wanting to sort of reach out and touch you. That was new.

It wasn't just the people who had thoughts and feelings about the story. I got tons of emails from people who said the story reminded them of their own experience, and some of those were caring and thoughtful. That part of the experience was hugely positive, and I was grateful. But other letters I received were sort of invasive and scary. They felt like someone exposing themselves to you on a subway. Like, Look at me—that demand for attention.

Since we're talking about mirrors: If fiction was a mirror I'd got used to looking into, well, suddenly the mirror had eyes.

It helps to go back to the Oates story, actually. This is often, though not always, a gendered thing: this sense some people have that if you've had an effect on them, if you've caught their attention, then you must be trying to do that. You must be pulling their attention to you. That's the dynamic between Connie and Arnold, right? He noticed her, and because he noticed her, she was asking for it. Of course, in many ways, that is very different from suddenly becoming a public figure, but it fuels this sense I have—in a way I haven't since I was a teenager—that people are looking at me with a sense of expectations I don't fully understand. Very suddenly, I don't know how I look in the world to other people. There's a bentness to everything, and it's disorienting.

But I do think I'll be able to get back to the old feeling. I was reading for 30 years before anyone cared, and I'll go back and read again. I'll read books by people who don't give a fuck about what my writing is like or who I am. Slowly, I think, I'll just sink back into remembering the truth, which is that my book is just one of millions of others on a shelf. I'm not as important as I sometimes like to trick myself into thinking. The truth is, you are always kind of anonymous. If you just wait long enough, everyone will forget, and you can go back to that place.

The Lessons, and the Costs, of Terrorism in Kenya

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 08:16 AM PST

NAIROBI—On a warm Tuesday afternoon here in Kenya's capital, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Secret Garden Café, a restaurant within an upscale hotel and office complex. The blast shredded the bodies of customers sitting at tables on the restaurant's ground-floor veranda, threw debris across the grassy courtyard, and shattered windows six floors up.

Minutes after the bombing, gunmen detonated more explosives at the security barrier leading into the development, leaving three cars engulfed in flames. Security-camera footage shows four black-clad men—one of them carrying a large backpack, all armed with assault rifles and wearing vests that held additional magazines of ammunition—walking purposefully into the complex, breaking stride only to aim occasional shots at unseen targets.

The attack is the latest in a series of terrorist incidents in Kenya in recent years that have shaken the country, and that offer lessons internationally, not just in the difficulty of containing the blowback from a decision to intervene in a neighboring conflict, but also in how a government can overhaul a security apparatus to better respond to such an assault.

When Tuesday's attack began, shortly after 3 p.m. with the suicide bombing, Caroline Muhati was eating a late lunch by a balcony at one of the office buildings inside the complex. "I thought maybe it's a fault in the electricity," the 23-year-old, who was just a few days into her new job as an office cleaner, told me. "But then I heard gunshots."

Muhati first hid in a storeroom, but finding herself alone in there and wanting desperately not to be by herself, she ducked out and ran to a nearby bathroom. Again, she found no one. "I was all alone. I was so afraid," she said afterward as she crouched on a pavement, shaking and sobbing.

The attack, which left at least 14 people dead and others wounded, had immediate echoes of a similar terrorist assault here more than five years ago, on the Westgate shopping mall. Within hours, the same perpetrators of that incident—al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia—had claimed responsibility for Tuesday's killings.

[Read: Tragic and heroic stories from the survivors of the Kenyan mall attack]

For more than a decade, al-Shabaab has fought to overthrow successive, weak internationally backed governments in Somalia, with little success but much loss of life. When Nairobi deployed its army to southern Somalia in 2011 to fight the jihadists on its border, the terrorist group turned its attention to Kenya. The fallout has been costly: 67 people were killed in the Westgate attack in September 2013, a further 148 died in an assault on Garissa University two years later, and on Tuesday more perished at the "14 Riverside" development, including one American.

In Mogadishu, the Somali capital, al-Shabaab militants have frequently carried out complex attacks like the one on Tuesday, using suicide bombers and explosives to breach compounds before sending in gunmen to kill civilians. The group has even exported this methodology, to Uganda and Djibouti. Tuesday's assault marked al-Shabaab's first use of a suicide bomber in Kenya, though.

The terrorist group said it had targeted an "opulent area" housing "international representatives." Nairobi is home to numerous multinational companies as well as large diplomatic and United Nations missions. It is a cosmopolitan place and a long-standing ally of the United States and other countries focused on fighting terrorism in the region. In many ways, 14 Riverside represents this international outlook. The mixed-use development includes the Thai-owned five-star hotel DusitD2, with its plush suites, expensive eateries, and trendy cocktail bars. The complex's four office blocks house technology, health-care, leisure, and finance companies from around the world. In short, it is just the kind of place al-Shabaab abhors: one of liberal attitudes and Western-style affluence.

The similarities to the Westgate attack are stark—four gunmen raiding a prominent city landmark in a bid to inflict as many casualties as possible while attracting as much attention as possible. But there are differences, too, for better and worse.

Westgate was, in the end, defined by ineptitude and failures. The response was so slow that by the time security forces entered the mall, most of those shot were already dead. Turf wars between the army and police led to a botched rescue operation and a deadly friendly-fire incident.

But on Tuesday, the army stayed away, and command was handed to a specialist paramilitary police unit that arrived quickly and worked effectively. (Its efforts were complicated, however, by the attackers, who had left live grenades in their wake to slow the officers as they made their way through the office buildings and then to the hotel.)

In one case, a Dubai-based businessman who did not want to be identified said he and his colleagues had bolted for a hotel room when the attack began. Sometime later, they heard people moving along the corridor, kicking in doors, and shouting. "You don't know if they're the bad guys or the good guys," the businessman said. "I just closed my eyes and prayed." It turned out that the men who had stormed into the room had been police officers, who were part of the force that helped about 700 people escape the large complex by variously crouching, taking cover, and running until they reached the safety of the street outside.

[Read: How should the world respond to terrorism]?

The attack on Westgate lasted a few hours, and the ensuing security operation went on for days. With the mall looted, burned, and partially collapsed, the government eventually claimed victory. This time, by Wednesday morning, roughly 20 hours after the assault had begun, President Uhuru Kenyatta was able to declare the operation over and the terrorists dead.

The toll, however, was nevertheless considerable.

"They were this close to us," said Kenneth Kirumba, a young software developer, his voice quivering as he held up his thumb and forefinger. Kirumba had huddled with his colleagues in the restrooms on the fifth floor of one block and locked the stall he was in. The gunmen, who were systematically making their way through the buildings, kicked in the door of the bathroom and fired a single shot before moving on.

When the police arrived, Kirumba emerged to see his friend and colleague lying on the floor lifeless, with a single gunshot to his head.

"We were a dozen in the toilets," Kirumba said, wiping away tears. "Eleven made it out."

What It’s Like Making Your First Film After 18 Years in ‘Movie Jail’

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 09:17 AM PST

In the 1990s, Mimi Leder was a formidable name in television. As a producer and director on the military drama China Beach and the smash hit ER, she helped invent a more robust, cinematic form for a medium that had long existed in the shadow of feature films. Landmark ER episodes like "Love's Labor Lost" and "The Healers" proved that TV could tell compelling stories on a scale that felt dynamic and epic, using long Steadicam shots and hefty effects budgets to pack a visual punch. So it was no surprise when Leder moved on to film, directing the blockbuster action movies The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998).

Then, in 2000, Leder made an undeniable flop: Pay It Forward, a prestige drama that received poor reviews and made $33 million domestically on a $40 million budget. Those numbers are hardly catastrophic, but for Leder, they all but ended her film career. She didn't make a major studio movie again for 18 years, instead heading back to the TV world, where she once again demonstrated her considerable skill on shows including Shameless and The Leftovers. Now she has finally returned to the big screen with On the Basis of Sex, released last month. A biographical retelling of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life, the film centers on the future Supreme Court justice's involvement in the landmark discrimination case Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue.

To make the movie, Leder ended up consulting with Ginsburg herself (played in the film by Felicity Jones) on the details of her college days and her marriage to Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). "I felt a lot of commonality with her, being Jewish, being a mother, having a long-standing marriage, and understanding what that takes," Leder said of the justice in an interview with The Atlantic. That commonality extends to their statuses as pioneers in their respective fields: Ginsburg was the second-ever female Supreme Court justice, and Leder has, by her own admission, fought to "break the glass ceiling" in an industry that overwhelmingly employs male directors.

[Read: A sea of blockbusters and almost no female filmmakers]

After one flop, Leder was sent to what she called "movie jail" and essentially banished from studio filmmaking. Meanwhile, many male directors have directed strings of unprofitable movies and gotten hired for bigger projects nonetheless. "I go where the storytelling needs me, and after I did Pay It Forward … I couldn't get a gig that I liked. I directed nine [TV] pilots after that," Leder said. "If you're a man who makes a $250 million flop, you'd probably get three more movies and fail upward. It's extraordinary; it's just not the case for women."

The script of On the Basis of Sex, written by Ginsburg's nephew Daniel Stiepleman, focuses on the Moritz case because it was an unheralded pivot point both in Ginsburg's career and in her fight against sexual discrimination. Argued in 1971 by both Ruth and Martin Ginsburg, it was a perfect test case because it involved a male plaintiff, Charles Moritz, who'd been denied a tax break when hiring a caretaker for his sick mother because he wasn't a woman. At the time, Ruth Ginsburg was a legal professor, having failed to find a position at a law firm despite graduating at the top of her class. A year later, she founded the ACLU's Women's Rights Project and became a leading gender-discrimination lawyer before being nominated to the federal bench and then, in 1993, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex (Focus Features)

Because much of On the Basis of Sex is set during the most frustrating period in Ruth Ginsburg's career, when she had to persuade the ACLU to pick her to argue the case in court, it's not hard to see why the material resonated with Leder. "She was a woman who lived in a culture of discrimination, got many slights and pats on the back," Leder remarked about Ginsburg. "What I felt was important about this film was to see her finding her voice. When you're not given the opportunity to do it, how do you just do it?"

Leder came to the project after reading Stiepleman's script, and then met with Justice Ginsburg to sharpen some of the story details, particularly focusing on her relationship with Martin. The film depicts Ruth's husband as a strapping, popular man who's nonetheless willing to be supportive and generally take a back seat to his wife. Martin was famed for his cooking, and Hammer is often clad in an apron, echoing the stock "supportive spouse" character that appears in so many biopics (but that is more often than not a female role). "Daddy did the cooking; Mommy did the thinking," was the way the Ginsburgs' daughter put it, according to Leder.

[Read: What Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught me about being a stay-at-home dad]

"I wanted the movie to focus on their marriage and what a true partnership is. Theirs was a very progressive relationship that was really unique to the times," Leder said of the Ginsburgs. "[Martin] was the preeminent tax lawyer in the country, and he'd go home, he'd cook for the family, have dinner with them, and then go back to work. Who does that? The relationship, the dialogue … I wanted it to feel as authentic as it could." Many of the film's best scenes aren't the courtroom back-and-forths but the kitchen-table debates, as Ruth, Martin, and their daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), wrestle over which is the better place to wage a battle for progress: in the streets or in the corridors of power. The two elder Ginsburgs obviously went the latter route, and Moritz was the only case they ever tried together. "It was a case that eventually turned over 178 laws because they were all discriminatory on the basis of sex," Leder said. "It ended centuries of discrimination."

The director's next major undertaking is once again in the television world, though it's a big-ticket project: Apple's upcoming, untitled drama about a morning show, which has assembled an all-star cast including Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Jennifer Aniston, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. On the Basis of Sex, now in wide release, hopefully won't mark the start of another long absence from the film world for Leder. But she thinks hiring demographics for directors won't really change until studios bring more women on board at the executive level.

"It's an industry that is still so sexist," Leder said. "I've mostly been hired by men, obviously. Sherry Lansing was the only woman who hired me at a studio, to direct Deep Impact. That was in 1998." Lansing, who was CEO of Paramount Pictures from 1992 to 2005 (a period of huge success for the company), was the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio. Now, with the recent departure of 20th Century Fox's Stacey Snider, there are no women in such top positions. Certainly some things have changed in the 18 years since Leder made a major movie—producers like Kathleen Kennedy, Victoria Alonso, and Dede Gardner have become powerhouses, working within the studio system and steering large projects. But given the ongoing dearth of women behind the camera, so much has stayed the same.