The original is less good than you remember, but Joseph Kosinski’s beautifully shot sequel, with Tom Cruise as the Dorian Gray of the U.S. Navy, manages to make absurd triumphalism disarmingly puppyish.
President Biden, squinting in the May sun, delivered what he called “historic” and “momentous” news on Thursday morning. Standing in the Rose Garden, he was flanked by two guests whose presence showed that this was not a case of standard-issue Presidential hyperbole: Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. A day after formally submitting their countries’ applications to join NATO, they had come to receive America’s blessing for the endeavor, the most concrete shift yet in the geopolitical order resulting from Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Biden gave it, offering them a folksy welcome to the Western alliance and promising them the full security protection that membership confers. “There is nothing going to be missed, as my mother would say, between the cup and lip,” the President said. “We’re in.”
Two hours after Biden’s Nordic photo op, the Senate approved—with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 86–11—a forty-billion-dollar aid package for Ukraine. The twin developments on Thursday reinforced the point that, in the not-quite three months since Russia attacked Ukraine, the war has already changed Washington in striking ways. New realities, such as the decisions of Finland and Sweden to join NATO—after decades of official neutrality, despite the predations of Hitler and Stalin—were recently seen as politically impossible. “After two hundred years of military nonalignment, Sweden has chosen a new path,” Andersson said, in remarks at the White House. Putin’s war, in other words, has now caused a once-every-two-hundred-years event. Other developments, such as suddenly present fears of a twenty-first-century nuclear war in Europe, were unthinkable before the invasion. Washington sending tens of billions of dollars to fund Ukraine’s resistance to Putin happened so quickly, meanwhile, that few have fully processed its meaning: an American decision to bankroll a proxy war against a hostile superpower.
When we spoke recently, Ivo Daalder, who served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO during Barack Obama’s Presidency, referred to “the shock of February 24th”—the date that Putin launched this war against his neighbor, with no real pretext beyond a messianic belief that Ukraine is a non-country belonging to Russia. That date, it is now clear, represents one of those hinge-point moments that happens every decade or two—a transformative event not just for Ukraine and Europe but for Washington, too. American power and purpose will be redefined by Putin’s decision for years to come. There will be a before February 24th and an after.
One of the most alarming changes since then has been the return of nuclear anxiety to America’s foreign-policy debate—a fear that reached its previous apogee in the Reagan era, when kids like me watched the Soviets bomb the Midwest into the apocalyptic dark ages in the television movie “The Day After.” But that fear dissipated after Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 and decided that neither of them was going to blow up the world after all. For most of the intervening years, the animating nuclear worry among U.S. policymakers has been the threat of nuclear-weapons proliferation to states such as Iran. Yet here we are, in 2022, worrying about whether Putin will go nuclear, rather than risk further humiliation and outright defeat for his military, given its remarkably poor performance. These days, my e-mail in-box is filled with speculation about Armageddon. “Will Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine?” the Atlantic Council asked, earlier this month. The Center for the National Interest, meanwhile, offered a Zoom session—“Does Nuclear War Loom with Russia?”—featuring its president, Dimitri Simes, just back from Moscow.
Inside the U.S. government, the prospect of nuclear conflict has been debated at the highest levels since February 24th. I spoke about this, on Thursday, with Michael McFaul, who served as a senior official on the National Security Council during the Obama Administration, and then as the Administration’s Ambassador to Russia. McFaul, now a Russia expert at Stanford, said that he had participated in detailed discussions over the past couple of months with “the most senior people in the U.S. government,” debating the probability of nuclear attack and working through what would happen if Russia employed tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine—which is now a real, if extremely low-probability, risk. “They are rightly focussed on that, and that is fundamentally new,” McFaul told me. “I served five years in the government. . . . Nobody ever seriously talked about the use of nuclear weapons in any scenario, in any country.”
Certainly, Finland and Sweden’s swift decisions to join NATO have created one of the most concrete and hard-to-reverse changes since February. The move has very specific military consequences for Russia, which will now face an additional eight-hundred-plus miles of border with NATO, two additional militaries that are among the most heavily armed and capable in Europe, and the prospect of the alliance being able to “bottle up the Baltic Sea and keep the Russians from coming out,” as Eric Edelman, a former Pentagon under-secretary in the George W. Bush Administration, put it to me. “It’s huge from a geostrategic point of view,” Edelman said. He also pointed out that the two countries have among the largest stockpiles of artillery in Europe, and “if we’ve learned anything from this war in Ukraine it’s that artillery does matter still.” Suffice it to say that one did not hear a lot about the Nordic angle on transatlantic security from the Biden foreign-policy team or anyone else before Putin’s invasion—nor, for that matter, about the game-changing importance of artillery.
Before February 24th, the future of NATO was also not entirely clear, particularly after the embarrassing end to its two-decade-long war in Afghanistan. Former President Donald Trump had declared the alliance “obsolete,” and came close to blowing it up, all while admiring Putin as a strategic “genius.” Trump’s former national-security-adviser John Bolton recently warned that if Trump were reëlected he would seek to withdraw the U.S. from NATO, an effort that now seems more inconceivable than Trump’s still-quite-possible return to office in 2024. “Putin’s war has given new life and meaning to NATO that will not go away,” McFaul predicted. “It reaffirms the central function of NATO as a defensive military alliance around which European security is organized,” Daalder said. “You can’t wish it away.” Instead, NATO officials are preparing for a summit in June, at which they will discuss the possibility of new permanent troop deployments along Russia’s frontier, additional European bases, and a long-term strategy far different than what they would have contemplated before February.
Putin’s war has some obvious beneficiaries in Washington, the defense budget and the Pentagon being perhaps the most predictable. But the scope and scale of the American commitment to arming Ukraine was unthinkable until Ukraine’s surprise victory over Russia in the battle of Kyiv. Earlier this month, when Biden asked for a new, thirty-six-billion-dollar aid package, Congress swiftly raised the ante to forty billion. It should be noted that Russia’s entire annual military budget is estimated at some sixty-six billion. The cumulative effect of American aid, in other words, along with contributions from other Western allies and from Ukraine itself, will make this an even more competitive fight than it already is.
The Biden Administration, like both Obama’s and Trump’s before it, came to office talking about a need for a strategic shift to Asia, given the challenge to American power that China’s rise represents. The imperative to focus on China remains, which is why on Thursday, immediately after meeting with the Nordic leaders at the White House, Biden departed on his first trip to Asia, to visit the U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. But Russia’s aggression against Ukraine—which now looks likely to settle into a “prolonged conflict,” as Avril Haines, the director of National Intelligence, told Congress last week, lasting years and potentially becoming a grinding “war of attrition”—has again discredited the idea of a pivot, for Biden or for future Presidents.
“That was a miscalculation—that they could just have a stable and predictable relationship with Putin and focus on what they wanted to. And now they can’t,” McFaul told me. “Now all those meetings in the White House—all of them are about Ukraine. They are not about China and Taiwan. . . . And they are going to be dealing with Ukraine for the rest of their time there.”
Much of the continuing fallout from the war looks to be far more challenging for the Biden Administration than having two strong and capable democracies raise their hands to join NATO. Turkey, for example, has said it will block their accession, an obstacle that U.S. officials say they are confident can be overcome—for a price, whether that means additional arms sales to Turkey or a bilateral meeting between Biden and the country’s increasingly autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which Biden has been so far reluctant to offer. Washington may also have to look more favorably on problematic oil-rich countries, such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, after Putin’s war sent the price of energy skyrocketing. And then there are the horrific human costs: the mass migration of millions of Ukrainians, Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, which are now trapped and held hostage in Black Sea ports, threatening famine in food-insecure places across the globe. None of it was what the White House had in mind before this war began.
All this suggests a reckoning of sorts, for which there are no good political answers yet in Washington, where problems at home, in an ever more divided America, understandably dominate. The rapid upending of the world as we knew it before February 24th should be a reminder of the humility needed in the months and years to come. Many observers did not believe that Putin would invade. Others did not believe his military would fare so poorly, and expected Kyiv to fall in days. And yet, now, a new conventional wisdom is taking hold in Washington—that Russia can actually lose this war, be routed from Ukraine, and be banished from the community of responsible nations. Would that it were so. But even a defeated Russia—perhaps especially a defeated Russia—will remain a consuming threat for the United States. This was Putin’s choice, though the consequences are, at least in part, Washington’s to determine.
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Last weekend, an eighteen-year-old white man killed ten people and injured three in a Tops grocery store located in Buffalo’s majority-Black East End. It was a deliberately planned attack, motivated by white-supremacist ideology; the gunman searched by Zip Code to find the highest concentration of Black people in his area, and then he drove two hundred miles to reach them. This segregation of Black people in an underserved neighborhood, in the third-poorest city in the nation, is reflective of a more commonplace and more pervasive form of American racism. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a contributing writer at The New Yorker and a professor of African American Studies at Princeton. She joins the guest host Evan Osnos to discuss the politics of housing, policing, and education in Buffalo, and how these structural forces relate to the rise of violent right-wing extremism. “We are so enamored with the idea of racism as explicit, as you most certainly know it when you see it,” Taylor says. “But these other manifestations—that mean that forty per cent of Black children in Buffalo live under the poverty line, that thirty-eight per cent of Black adults live under the poverty line, that the quality of housing on the East Side of Buffalo is wood-based and deteriorating compared to the brick houses of the West Side of the city—these kinds of insidious forms of racism are allowed to continue unaddressed for decades.”
Before Payton Gendron carried out a racist mass shooting at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, last weekend, killing ten people and wounding three more, he spent many months developing his hate crime on the Internet. Logs from a weapons-focussed group called Plate Land on the social platform Discord, collected by the media nonprofit Unicorn Riot, reveal that he had been discussing the efficacy of body armor. “Wouldnt it hurt a lot being shot with any type of bulelt with armor on,” he wrote under the username Jimboboii, in early 2021. Thousands of other Discord messages that have circulated in recent days make his intentions crystal clear: “It’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort shitpost. I will carry out an attack,” Gendron, who is eighteen, declared, in December. At that time, he’d already identified March 15, 2022, as the date for his attack, referencing the third anniversary of the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which fifty-one people were killed. (In the end, he got delayed by a case of COVID-19.) Gendron later posted a manifesto on the anonymous message board 4chan, explaining his motives, which centered on “replacement theory,” the false conviction that white people are facing genocide and being replaced by immigrants. His attack would “intimidate the replacers already living on our lands,” he wrote. During the shooting, he used a GoPro to live-stream on Twitch, a platform that is best known for allowing people to watch other people play video games. The stream was taken down after two minutes, a swift response on Twitch’s part, but the footage has since proliferated across the Internet and received millions of views through Twitter and other social platforms.
Gendron, who was indicted by a grand jury on Thursday for first-degree murder, was hardly the first mass shooter to make use of a disturbing kit of Web sites and apps to plan, execute, and document an attack. The Christchurch killer, in 2019, also live-streamed his rampage, on Facebook, for as long as seventeen minutes. A German mass shooter the same year used Twitch to broadcast his attack outside a synagogue; it was seen by more than two thousand people on the platform. Parts of Gendron’s writings were lifted directly from the Christchurch shooter’s own manifesto, which was posted on social media and has become a reference point for racist extremists. In El Paso, Texas, the far-right gunman who killed twenty-three people at a Walmart, in 2019, published a screed on the forum 8chan. Discord has reported that it banned more than two thousand communities that were “organizing around hate, violence, or extremist ideologies” in the second half of last year. Yet Gendron freely discussed the minutiae of his violent plans on the platform. What’s most chilling about his reams of messages is how racist bile and criminal scheming coexist alongside the kinds of mundane updates that can be found everywhere on the Internet. “the White population in the US will be REPLACED by shitskins,” Gendron wrote, using a racist slur. He announced his aim to “take back the cities” from nonwhite people and described his support for eugenics. He posted about assault-rifle magazines, live-stream-technology troubleshooting, and what he ate for lunch. “I had a very bad night of sleep, I would be working on my manifesto but I cant think right now,” he wrote. He recommended weapons stores (“I like the guy at Vintage Firearms”) and noted, of going to a flea market with a friend, “It was a nice break from preparing for the attack.” He researched when his targeted Tops grocery store, which is situated in a majority-Black neighborhood, was most likely to be full of locals: “3-5 PM is where it’s busiest according to google maps.” He tallied out loud how many people he hoped to kill: “I’m expecting 10-20 people dead from area 1, 5-10 people dead from area 2, and another 5-10 people dead from area 3.”
Discord has become a haven for Gen Z-ers, who use it to hang out with their friends online, but older generations who still rely on Twitter and Facebook may be wholly unaware of it. Like Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, Discord emerged from the gaming industry, marketing itself to players who needed to talk with one another in real time. (Video games were once blamed for influencing their players to commit violence; today it seems obvious that the content of games is less pertinent than the demographic that gaming Web sites attract: bored and isolated male adolescents.) Since Discord launched, in 2015, it has grown into an all-purpose tool for hosting various kinds of digital communities. More than a hundred and fifty million monthly users connect on the platform through chat, video streams, and live audio conversations. The Discord app looks a bit like the workplace tool Slack, if Slack allowed you to flip through many different groups at once. When you log in, the left side of your screen shows a vertical bar of avatar thumbnails representing various chat rooms to which you belong, plus direct messages with individual users. Once you’ve clicked into a group, you can select from different topical sub-channels. (Plate Land, for instance, had a #bag-general channel, for discussions of gear, and another called #weapon-talk.) The user experience is chaotic and geared toward obsessive engagement. Unless you’re monitoring your updates and notifications constantly, they’re likely to pile up into an incomprehensible mass. Picture trying to monitor a dozen different Twitter accounts at once in a single interface.
As others have pointed out in recent days, “lone wolf” is something of a misnomer for right-wing terrorists whose ideas and methods are being explicitly nurtured through online communities. Such extremists don’t become radicalized solely by perusing the automated algorithmic feeds that the rest of us see on Facebook or YouTube. They seek out forums for those who have similar views, follow charismatic voices, and egg one another on. A mass shooter who finds inspiration in Christchurch or encouragement in chat rooms isn’t a solo operator or a spontaneous “copycat” so much as a digital comrade-in-arms. Many of Discord’s servers, as they’re called, are open to anyone and thus searchable on a central directory, not unlike Reddit’s browsable channels, or subreddits. But many others are private, which means that they can be accessed only by those with a link from their administrators. Discord told me, through a spokesperson, that Gendron was posting his messages in an “invite-only server” that he used as a “personal diary chat log.” According to the spokesperson, no one else saw the contents of the server until roughly thirty minutes before the shooting, when “a small group of people” were invited to join. Discord wouldn’t comment on whether Gendron was active on the platform beyond Plate Land and his personal server. But even when he was purportedly posting privately, he seemed aware of his own potential to influence others. “Im quite uncomfortable giving out so much of my personal thoughts and feelings, but perhaps it’ll be useful for someone,” he wrote on Discord, on March 4th. In some ways, the forces that encourage mass shooters are bleakly similar to those that fuel the careers of any influencers, drawing passive content consumers into the orbit of particularly vocal posters.
In other ways, though, the digital tools that extremists favor are breaking with the dominant social networks of the past decade. Live-streamed videos are notoriously hard to moderate and censor, because they must be caught and removed in real time. Whereas YouTube requires users to have a fifty-person following before they’re permitted to live-stream, Twitch is designed to let anyone broadcast immediately. (The company said this week that Gendron “has been indefinitely suspended from our service” and that it is “monitoring for any accounts rebroadcasting this content.”) Discord, meanwhile, is part of a movement in social media to create smaller, more private online communities for those eager to flee the Internet’s chaotic “public squares.” But the flight to privacy, as it’s sometimes called, makes identifying problematic user activity more difficult. Watchdog groups and journalists often spot problematic content on digital platforms such as YouTube or Facebook before the platforms themselves act to remove it. That outside observation becomes much more difficult when content is hidden from public view, so platforms must be relied on to track communications internally. Unlike on WhatsApp or other encrypted-messaging services, Discord’s hired moderators can review private content. According to the company spokesperson, Discord has a devoted “Counter-Extremism sub-team” and uses a “mix of proactive and reactive tools,” including machine learning, to root out violent and hateful ideologies “before they are reported to us.” Yet Gendron freely posted about his violent plans up until just days before he carried them out. On May 1st, he wondered, “Maybe I should block the one of the backdoors of tops with my car? Just saw how the binghamton shooter did his attack, I haven’t even thought of blocking the doors.” On May 9th, he wrote, “No matter what do what is right for you people and your race.” Discord said that it only became aware of Gendron’s personal server and shut it down “immediately following the attack.” The question now is why the platform’s detection mechanisms so blatantly failed. (On Wednesday, New York attorney general Letitia James announced an investigation into Twitch, Discord, and other platforms in connection with the shooting.)
Keeping extremist content off of social platforms will always be a necessary game of whack-a-mole. As Kathleen Belew, a scholar of far-right extremism, wrote in a recent Times op-ed, the replacement theory that shooters such as Gendron espouse has moved from the fringes into the mainstream, and the “window for action is closing.” Yet, even if a platform manages to root out a hate group before something terrible happens, it can’t stop the members from regrouping elsewhere online. An instructive example comes from the online activity leading up to the January 6th riot on the Capitol. One long-running subreddit focussed on pro-Trump content, r/donaldtrump, was banned after the invasion, for hosting calls for violence. Users of the subreddit had committed “policy violations,” according to a Reddit statement. But another subreddit that had been previously banned, r/The_Donald, reëmerged before January 6th as a Web site called TheDonald.win, where users were also active in planning the riot. When that site was shut down, too, on January 21, 2021, its users moved to the domain Patriots.win. In the case of the first forum, Reddit’s crackdown was too little, too late; in the case of the second, the platform’s response was more timely but still ineffectual. Gendron’s constant “shitposting” on Discord was evidently central to his planning of mass murder; without that venue, it’s possible that he would not have gone through with his attack. Unfortunately, it’s equally possible that he would have simply brought his compulsive plotting someplace else.
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The staff writer Eric Lach recently wrote about the murder of a twenty-four-year-old man named Marcus Bethea, who, in April, was shot and killed at the Jamaica Center–Parsons/Archer subway station, in Queens. Bethea had been a “swiper,” selling discount MetroCard swipes to passengers off the books for cash. This week, the newsletter editor Ian Crouch spoke to Lach about his reporting on crime in the subway, the swiping economy, and the state of the city’s underground transit system.
The story of crime in New York always becomes a political story, both on the local and national level. What did you learn about the disconnect between the existential problems that people may be projecting onto the city’s subway system, and the practical concerns that activists and experts identify as more pressing problems?
This is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and was part of the motivation for doing this reporting. Yes, crime is up in the subways this year. And the ways that New York thinks about crime and approaches it are often seen as a kind of leading indicator for how the rest of the country thinks about it generally. Crime is up, but it is up from low levels. So what we are talking about, really, is a few hundred more incidents a month on the subway in a city of 8.8 million people. Some people argue that of course crime is up this year, because ridership has increased from pandemic numbers, and there are more people commuting again.
When we talk about crime stats, what we’re talking about is reported crime—the things that people call in to the police. There are limitations in using that as a stand-in for what conditions are like in the subway more generally. Crime aside, people who use the subway are encountering other stressful situations. Riders are more anxious and fearful than they used to be, and it’s not like there’s no reason for that. There has been an increase in smoking on the subway, and loud music, and other things that bother people. Riders are being less respectful of one another. And lots of people are responding to that with exasperation. And then you add to that the actual service that the subway provides, the way that even before the pandemic people were frustrated with the level of cleanliness, the regularity of service, and the reliability of trains.
Should crime be the way we look at the subway system and how people are feeling about cohabitating in the city? You could make a case that it has taken on too big a place in the discussion. I do think there needs to be a wider discussion about how cities are functioning right now, and how they are rebounding, and how they are still struggling with all the damage that the pandemic caused.
What does a story like this, and specifically about swipers running this visible yet secret economy, reveal about the parts of the city that are easy to overlook or miss completely?
Swiping is a soft, wink-and-nod hustle. There are a couple of ways to think about it. The cops and the M.T.A. consider swipers to be nuisances, criminals, and breakers of rules—and they arrest them, depending on the circumstances. The swipers themselves say that they are offering a service to people. They offer discount fares, and lots of people need those. They are just trying to squeeze a dollar to make a living; nobody is getting rich doing this.
Part of the story is that there is a difference between a soft hustle and a hard one. At Parsons/Archer, some swipers in the past couple of years seem to have become more aggressive, and, rather than just offering their services to people who wanted them, they began hassling everyone who came by to pay them to access the station. And that is a big difference.
Meanwhile, the city recognizes that many people cannot afford the two dollars and seventy-five cents that it costs to take the subway, and to address that they’ve created this program called Fair Fares, which offers discount MetroCards for people living below the poverty line. But the city’s own estimate is that only two hundred thousand of the eight hundred thousand people who are eligible for this program actually use it, for reasons that plague all kinds of social-service efforts: you have to demonstrate that you qualify, you have to fill out paperwork, you have to know that the program even exists. And the swipers argue that they are providing what is essentially that service, where people are, without any red tape. They are just offering people a cheaper way into the subway. Like a lot of the ways that the city functions, it’s complicated.
The New York subway is this expensive, complex, essential piece of urban infrastructure, but it has also served as a metaphor for different stories that people tell about the city at different points in history. What is the story of the subway in this moment?
The story is the slower rebound in subway ridership than everyone anticipated. People stopped taking the subway during the pandemic. More people are taking it now than were riding it in the fall of 2020, or the spring of 2021, but it’s still not nearly up to pre-pandemic levels. The question is: How long will that dip last? And the bigger question is: What does the dip mean? Does it mean that we’re rearranging the relationship that New Yorkers have with their offices? Are we rearranging the relationship that New Yorkers have with the rest of their city, in ways that might turn out to be permanent?
Read more about the New York City subway:
The Sunset Park shooting has forced riders to adjust their inner subway armor, as a rise in untreated mental illness changes the nature of the subway compact.
New York’s transit system is exceptional in its ability to reflect the crises and moods of the city.
For the city’s subway conductors, the threat of hitting a person with their train looms over every day on the job.
ALLENWOOD, PENNSYLVANIA (The Borowitz Report)—Immediately after being released from prison, the former pharmaceutical C.E.O. Martin Shkreli got an unpleasant surprise when an Uber driver charged him three hundred times the normal rate.
The driver said that he jacked up the price of Shkreli’s ride once he recognized the notorious “pharma bro,” sending the cost of the twelve-dollar fare rocketing to thirty-six hundred dollars.
Refusing to pay, Shkreli demanded to get out of the car, after which he walked to the side of the road and began hitchhiking.
As of press time, Shkreli had yet to get a ride, as drivers recognizing the convicted felon sped past him.
The Uber driver said that Shkreli had been “really pissed” about the sudden increase in price, but added, “I explained to him, this is how capitalism works.”
When Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, appeared on Fox News on Wednesday morning to talk about the latest primary results, she was in a buoyant mood. In the eagerly watched Pennsylvania contests for the U.S. Senate, the Republicans had turned out about a hundred thousand more voters than the Democrats, demonstrating, McDaniel said, that the G.O.P. was the party with the energy on the ground. As she spoke, the Republican contest was still too close to call, with about five per cent of the votes still uncounted, including thousands of postal votes. The carpetbagger celebrity doctor from New Jersey, Mehmet Oz, whom Donald Trump had endorsed, was running narrowly ahead of David McCormick, a former Treasury official in the George W. Bush Administration who grew up in Pennsylvania but has spent the last decade in Connecticut getting rich helping to run one of the world’s biggest hedge funds.
McDaniel expressed confidence that either Republican would prevail in November, claiming the Democrats, in choosing the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, would be putting forward an unelectable left-winger. “If you look at what [Bill] de Blasio did to New York City, that is what Fetterman would do for Pennsylvania,” she quipped. The Fox interviewers, Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino, didn’t challenge McDaniel’s characterization of Fetterman, a bearded, six-foot-eight-inch former mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, who exudes a plain-spoken populism that some Republican strategists see as a threat. The interviewers also waited until the end of the interview to bring up the elephant in the room: Donald Trump.
When they did, Hemmer pointed out that the former President, in fact, had a mixed night. In the G.O.P. Senate primary in North Carolina, the three-term congressman Ted Budd, whom Trump endorsed, won easily. So did Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator who scored a last-minute endorsement from Trump in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary, and who made 2020 election denialism a core part of his candidacy. But Trump also backed some losers, including Madison Cawthorn, the controversial and soon-to-be former congressman from North Carolina. McDaniel, a Trump loyalist going back to 2016, quickly brushed off the suggestion that he might not be politically omnipotent. “He’s at ninety-six per cent,” she said. “In baseball that’s a thousand.”
Whether McDaniel’s math is accurate, Trump’s endorsement boosted Oz this Tuesday (just as it aided J. D. Vance in Ohio a couple of weeks ago), upending a race in which some of his own former flunkies, such as Hope Hicks, were already working for McCormick. With Trump’s help, a formerly pro-choice Muslim-American doctor who owes his career to the Democrat Oprah Winfrey and lives in a mansion on the Hudson, appears to have gained the support of a plurality, or a near plurality of Pennsylvanian G.O.P. voters. It’s hard to imagine this happening absent Trump’s endorsement.
The complicating factor is that about one in four G.O.P. primary voters rejected Oz and McCormick in favor of the right-wing firebrand Kathy Barnette, a homophobic Christian fundamentalist, who once tweeted out a story with the headline “Pedophilia Is a Cornerstone of Islam.” Barnette’s strong showing—achieved with a far smaller budget than her opponents’—shows that many Trump hard-core supporters will support the most zealous MAGA candidate, even one who doesn’t have Trump’s imprimatur. But as McDaniel’s cloying praise of Trump showed, it didn’t shake the belief among Republicans in Washington that the former President remains, by far, the most powerful person in the Party; and that you must never, ever, challenge him.
This rule applies even as Trump continues to demand adherence to his seditionist lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Even as he backs extremist candidates like Mastriano, who is most certainly the Republican candidate that Pennsylvania Democrats would most like to face in November. And even as he asks Republicans to give a “second chance” to a wacko candidate such as Cawthorn, whose short but calamitous tenure in Congress included two airport stops for carrying a loaded gun, a leaked video of him in bed naked with another man, and claims, from him, that other Republican legislators were doing cocaine and taking part in orgies.
Whatever establishment Republicans such as McDaniel privately think of the Faustian pact they have made with Trump, they aren’t going to break it anytime soon. With inflation at a forty-year high and Joe Biden languishing in the polls, they believe they are headed for a blowout victory in the midterms—and many Democrats privately agree with them. The one thing that Washington Republicans are asking of the former President, in return for their unceasing public fealty, is that he not do anything so outrageous that it sabotages their chances in November. With Trump, this is a big risk.
On Wednesday morning, he inserted himself into Pennsylvania’s vote count, posting on his social media site Truth Social, “Here we go again! In Pennsylvania they are unable to count the Mail-In Ballots. It is a BIG MESS.” A bit later, in the same venue, he went further, implying that somebody may be plotting to deprive Oz of a primary win. “Dr. Oz. should declare victory. It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find,’ ” Trump said.
This inflammatory statement, like so many others, appeared to be baseless. With thousands of votes still to be counted, there had been no suggestion of any malfeasance. While Oz and McCormick had both expressed confidence that they would ultimately win, neither had suggested anything was amiss. The official in charge of the count, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of state, Leigh Chapman, told CNN that the election had been “very smooth.” Since the vote was so close, a recount seemed likely, and Chapman said she would know next week whether one was necessary.
Trump, of course, was following his November, 2020, playbook, when he declared, without a shred of credible evidence, that Democratic state officials in Pennsylvania had stolen the state’s twenty electoral votes from him. He kept up these incendiary and discredited claims through the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and to this day. McDaniel, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans of their ilk would dearly love to put all this behind them and concentrate on winning in November. With his intervention on Wednesday, in which he once again sought to undermine public faith in the electoral system, Trump showed just how forlorn this hope is.
Like many prestigious awards that recognize great accomplishment in this country, the Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning, created in 2004 to commemorate the legacy of the late Washington Post cartoonist Herb Block, had never been offered to a nonwhite person—until this year. While accepting the prize at the Library of Congress on the evening of April 27th, Lalo Alcaraz, a Chicano from San Diego, California, said what many of his friends and followers were posting on social media: “It’s about time.” For the past thirty years, Alcaraz, who is also the first Latino political cartoonist to author a nationally syndicated comic strip, has used a caustic, take-no-prisoners humor against anti-immigrant and racist public figures. “No other political cartoonist working in the U.S. brings as much passion, dedication and brilliance to the fight for fair immigration at the border and justice for the Latino community,” the Herblock judges stated.
In 2020 and 2021, Alcaraz had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the editorial-cartooning category, but, last year, in a decision that angered many cartoonists, the board chose not to declare a winner and has since eliminated that particular category. The Herblock Prize, then, signalled a triumph for an artist beloved in the Latinx community but who, like the community itself, has long felt a lack of recognition from mainstream America. Now he has finally been accepted. Or has he? “I get a lot of hate mail,” Alcaraz said in his acceptance speech. A few days later, during a Zoom call from Los Angeles, he told me, “There is still this American societal attitude that we are foreign.”
He is not, in fact, foreign. The child of immigrants who moved to this country from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Zacatecas, Alcaraz was born in 1964 in San Diego, a city, he told me, that was “in denial that it was on the U.S.-Mexico border.” He grew up witnessing and experiencing discrimination and racism—from cops pulling him over for no reason, when he rode his bike as a kid, to “shoplifting police,” following him and his mother in stores, to a large outdoor swap meet that ended with Border Patrol cars and helicopters chasing a group of undocumented immigrants as a crowd of horrified Mexican Americans watched. These experiences, he said, put “the politics of the border in front of my eyes.”
That political awakening led him, as an undergraduate at San Diego State University, to join MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), a civil-rights student group founded in 1969. He graduated in 1987, with a degree in art focussed on environmental design, and completed a master’s in architecture, at U.C. Berkeley, in 1991. He started drawing cartoons seriously at San Diego State, and at Berkeley he co-created a comedy group, the Chicano Secret Service, in which he performed at campus protests, and a satirical magazine called Pocho, which still exists as pocho.com. (Pocho is a derogatory term for Mexican Americans who have Americanized and lost their Mexican culture.)
In 1992, soon after the L.A. riots, a friend introduced Alcaraz to Kit Rachlis, then the editor-in-chief of LA Weekly, an influential alternative magazine. Rachlis looked at Alcaraz’s work and, impressed by his “sardonic, pointed” cartoons, which, he told me, had “a sensibility taken from graphic novels,” offered him a regular spot. He created a comic strip, “L.A. Cucaracha,” which ran in the magazine until 2010 and, since 2002, has been nationally syndicated as “La Cucaracha” in more than sixty newspapers. The main character, Cuco Rocha, Alcaraz has explained, is “such an angry Chicano activist that he turned into a cockroach.” Cuco is actually an anthropomorphized cockroach who, according to one reviewer, “comes off less Kafka and more Subcomandante Marcos” (the former leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a guerrilla group in Chiapas, Mexico). Cuco is joined in the comic by two regular humans, his best friend and alter ego, Eddie, and Vero, Eddie’s girlfriend. They are young, working-class, bilingual Chicanos, with a world view shaped by the enthusiastic activism sparked by Cesar Chavez and by the anger ignited by Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that restricted public services, including health care and education, for undocumented immigrants. A review of past strips offers a catalogue of anti-Latinx episodes. In one, from June, 2016, Cuco reads from his smartphone to Eddie, “Trump called a Mexican judge who is going to rule on the Trump University fraud case ‘a Mexican’ and ‘a hater of Donald Trump.’ ” Eddie replies, “Wow. Openly Mexican judges.” Cuco adds, “Next thing you know, they’ll want to use our bathrooms.” (Alcaraz’s Twitter name is Mexican Judge.)
The cockroach “is a symbol for Chicanos,” Alcaraz said, which derives from two sources. One is Chicano literature and art, including the classic “The Revolt of the Cockroach People,” by Oscar (Zeta) Acosta, a roman à clef, published in 1973, about the rise of the Chicano movement in Los Angeles in the late sixties and early seventies. As Israel Reyes, a professor at Dartmouth College who has written about Alcaraz’s work, put it, the cockroach “is a metaphor of how immigrants, Mexicans, have been represented as insects, as a nuisance, as space invaders, the Latino threat to be eliminated. Alcaraz appropriates this and turns it upside down. It’s a way of empowering through this image that was actually used to marginalize.” The second source is the popular Mexican folk song, of Spaniard origin, “La Cucaracha,” about a cockroach who can’t walk. The song has a traditional melody, but the lyrics are often improvised to fit the occasion; it has been used at least since the Mexican Revolution for satirical commentary on social or political topics.
Alcaraz has published a book of “La Cucaracha” strips and a collection of cartoons about immigration (“Migra Mouse,” 2004), illustrated two books on cartoon history, and worked on several animation projects. He has also occasionally performed. During the 1994 reëlection campaign of Governor Pete Wilson, who supported Proposition 187, Alcaraz played a right-wing, anti-immigrant activist named Daniel D. Portado, which in Spanish reads as deportado (deported). Wearing the dark sunglasses of a cartoonish secret agent, D. Portado made mock radio ads and media appearances, including on a Telemundo news show, to express support for Wilson’s “self-deportation message.” (Proposition 187 passed, but was later ruled to be unconstitutional.) Almost two decades later, during the 2012 Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney, who was clearly not in on the joke, seriously suggested self-deportation as a solution for the undocumented workers’ plight.
But for the many who were in on the joke, Alcaraz’s work provided fodder for the fight against discrimination, racism, and injustice. His cartoons were printed on large placards and carried at protests and sit-ins. Among them were the Migra Mouse cartoons, which depict Mickey Mouse dressed in a Border Patrol uniform, a character that Alcaraz created in response to Disney’s financial contributions to Wilson’s campaign. (Disney also contributed to the campaign of his opponent, Kathleen Brown.) Years later, Alcaraz created Muerto Mouse, a skeleton Mickey Mouse—this time rebuking Disney’s attempt to trademark, for marketing purposes, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) as the title of the 2017 Pixar animated feature that was eventually released as “Coco.” Online protests against the commercial appropriation of an important Mexican holiday led Disney to drop the attempt, and to hire Alcaraz as a cultural consultant to provide feedback on the film. More recently, in an effort to fight COVID disinformation in the American Latinx community, Alcaraz reimagined the artist Emanuel Martínez’s 1967 depiction of the Mexican Revolution leader Emiliano Zapata, “Tierra o Muerte” (“Land or Death”), with his typical sombrero and bullet belt across the chest, but replacing his rifle with a giant vaccine needle, and the legend “Vacuna o Muerte” (“Vaccine or Death”).
Alcaraz has also targeted conservative Latinx people, whom he has portrayed in “La Cucaracha” as “self-hating Latinos.” Cuco Rocha can often be found answering “hate mail from Latinos, a.k.a. self-hate mail,” such as one letter that reads, “Dear Lowlife, the characters in your strip are all gang members, not smart, super observant, educated Hispanics like me.” Cuco replies, “Dear Reader, our strip is populated by teachers, pupils, journalists, business folk, even astronauts!” And the reader writes back, “My point exactly! A gathering of more than three Hispanics is technically a gang.”
Six nights a week, Vladimir Solovyov, one of the dominant voices in Russian propaganda, gathers a half-dozen pundits for more than two hours of what appears to be unscripted political crosstalk. Most recent episodes have been devoted to mocking Ukraine and its allies—especially the United States and President Biden—and debating Russia’s options. “Should we just turn the world to dust?” Solovyov asked during his show on April 29th. His guests—seven middle-aged men—laughed heartily. Later, Solovyov grew sombre. “I’d like to remind the West of two statements of historic significance,” he said. “The President of the Russian Federation has asked, ‘What is the point of a world in which there is no Russia?’ ” This is a quote from an interview Solovyov himself conducted with Vladimir Putin, in 2018, in which Putin responded to a question about the possibility of a nuclear war. The second statement Solovyov quoted was also from Putin in 2018: “If they start a nuclear war, we will respond. But we, being righteous people, will go straight to Heaven, while they will just croak.” Solovyov quotes this one a lot, sometimes as a sort of call-and-response with his guests.
All broadcast television in Russia is either owned or controlled by the state. The main evening newscasts on the two main state channels, Channel One and Russia One, cover more or less the same stories, in more or less the same order. On April 30th, for example, Channel One led with a report from a village recently “liberated from the neo-Nazis”; Russia One began its newscast with a general update on the gains made by Russian troops—“Hundreds of neo-Nazis liquidated, tens of airborne targets hit, and several hits against command centers and equipment stockpiles.” Both newscasts reported on atrocities ostensibly committed by Ukrainian troops. “The Ukrainian Army once more bombed civilian targets,” Russia One claimed. Channel One carried a detailed confession supposedly made by a Ukrainian prisoner of war, who said that he had raped a Russian woman and murdered her husband. Both channels carried reports from a military hospital where a group of young men in identical striped pajamas received medals for their heroic roles in “liberating” Ukrainian towns and villages.
Coverage is repetitive not just from day to day, television channel to television channel; nearly identical stories appear in print and online media, too. According to a number of current and former employees at Russian news outlets, there is a simple explanation for this: at weekly meetings with Kremlin officials, editors of state-controlled media, including broadcasters and publishers, coördinate topics and talking points. Five days a week, a state-controlled consultancy issues a more detailed list of topics. (The organization did not respond to a request for comment.) I have not seen these lists myself—individuals with access to them said that they were too scared of being prosecuted under new espionage laws to share them—but they agreed to analyze the lists during the course of a couple of weeks. They said that the lists generally contained six to ten topics a day, which appear designed to supplement the Ministry of Defense’s war updates that constitute mandatory coverage. Those among my sources who have seen these lists work for non-broadcast media, but the talking points they described invariably appeared in the news lineups on Channel One and Russia One.
Topics fall into four broad categories: economic, revelatory, sentimental, and ironic. Economic stories should show that Western sanctions against Russia have made life harder in Europe than in Russia: people in Britain can’t afford heat, Germans could be forced to ride bikes because gas prices are rising, stock markets are falling, and Western Europe may be facing a food crisis. Revelatory topics focus on misinformation and disinformation in the West. These may include stories about Ukrainian refugees exposing their true criminal selves by shoplifting in a Western European country, or a segment about Austin Tice, an American journalist who was kidnapped in Syria, in 2012, narrated to suggest that he was punished for telling the truth about the United States. Sentimental stories focus on connections between Russians in Russia and in eastern Ukraine: a couple getting married in newly “liberated” Berdyansk, humanitarian aid from Russia arriving in the Donetsk region, and Russian doctors providing medical treatment to children injured in Ukraine. Finally, ironic stories focus on mocking the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and, frequently, Joe Biden’s supposed mental decline. For these, Russian television often uses segments from Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News.
In the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I was in Moscow, watching television, and I was struck by the ways in which channels downplayed the war: the tone was matter-of-fact, the length of newscasts unchanged. I assumed that this was a strategy aimed at making Russians pay little attention to what the Kremlin was calling a “special military operation.” But, according to my sources, what I was observing was not a deliberate strategy but a lack of strategy. At least some of the Kremlin’s media managers hadn’t known that the invasion was coming. Now television is all war all the time; in addition to talk shows and newscasts, there are special reports that claim to debunk Western and Ukrainian propaganda or to expose the roots of so-called Ukrainian fascism, and fictional dramas on the Great Patriotic War, Russia’s term for the Soviet part of the Second World War. In the past, journalists in television and print media would be instructed to pursue specific angles on stories. But people who have seen the lists describe a less prescriptive process today. “It’s this, not that—for example, Mariupol, and not Bucha,” one of my sources said. “And within that space you can even have a discussion.”
Solovyov, whose show airs on Russia One, is a master of orchestrating what sounds like discussion, within the narrow space defined by authorities. On April 26th, he and Margarita Simonyan, who runs both Rossiya Segodnya, a domestic state-news holding, and RT, the international arm of the television-propaganda machine, discussed a purported plot to assassinate them and several other propagandists that had ostensibly been foiled by the secret police a day earlier. Footage of the raid looked like a parody—among the evidence police claimed to have found was a pendant with a swastika on one side and a Ukrainian trident on the other, Molotov cocktails in plastic bottles (not a thing), and three video-game cartridges. Simonyan mused that the assassination was planned on orders from the opposition politician Alexey Navalny, in collaboration with Zelensky, because both are neo-Nazis.
In 2020, Navalny himself survived an assassination attempt that appears to have been carried out by Russia’s security service, the F.S.B.; he has been in prison for more than a year. “Can you even imagine the things he would have done here, if he hadn’t been jailed?” Simonyan said. Before I dived into watching Russian propaganda, Lev Gudkov, an independent sociologist, told me that television rhetoric was based on “ascribing their own traits to the opponent.” It really is that simple. Solovyov and his guests, along with the other news anchors, reporters, and hosts on Channel One and Russia One, sound like aggrieved kids on a playground: “No, you are the Nazi!”; “You are shelling residential neighborhoods!”; “You kill journalists!”; “You rape and kill civilians!”; “You are genocidal!” (I asked Solovyov and Simonyan for interviews; Solovyov didn’t respond, and Simonyan used her Telegram channel, which has about three hundred thousand subscribers, to announce that she would not speak to me.)
The Yale historian Timothy Snyder has coined the term “schizo-fascism” to describe actual fascists who call their enemies “fascists.” Snyder has said that the tactic follows Hitler’s recommendation to tell a lie so big and outrageous that the psychic cost of resisting it is too high for most people—in the case of Ukraine, an autocrat wages a genocidal war against a democratic nation with a Jewish President, and calls the victims Nazis. The talking heads on Russian television regularly acknowledge the apparent absurdity of the situation they claim to describe. “The world has gone mad,” Dmitry Drobnitsky, a political scientist, said on Solovyov’s show, on April 29th. “Russians are Russophobic, and Jews are the worst anti-Semites.” A few days later, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in an interview on Italian television, repeated the same canard about anti-Semitic Jews, adding that Hitler was part-Jewish. Solovyov, who is Jewish, has referred to Zelensky as “a supposed Jew.”
The culture of state television formed gradually in the course of the past two decades. In 2000, Putin began his first Presidential term by launching a state takeover of the country’s leading privately owned broadcast-television channel; within a few years, all broadcast television, including local stations, was controlled by the state. State television, which had languished in the nineteen-nineties, now received good money from the government, and many of the journalists, editors, and producers who had worked for private channels went to work for the state. In 2004, during Putin’s second Presidential election, I sat down to talk with Evgeny Revenko, a deputy news editor for All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, a holding that includes what is now Russia One. “It’s a simple logical chain,” he told me. “We are state television. Our state is a Presidential republic. Hence, we don’t criticize the President.” Revenko, who had previously worked as a correspondent and news anchor on independent television, went on to head the holding’s news operation.
Farida Kurbangaleeva, a former daytime news anchor, started working at Russia One in the spring of 2007, when she was twenty-seven. “Those were very mild times,” she told me over Zoom from Prague, where she now lives. “We could start a newscast with a story on the Large Hadron Collider or the death of fashion designer Gianfranco Ferré, those kinds of general-interest stories. It was considered in poor taste to lead with a story on Putin.” By 2013, Kurbangaleeva said, general-interest stories, particularly international ones, were out, and reports on Russian military exercises were in. Kurbangaleeva described the editing process to me. “You are writing your copy in a proprietary program, and my bosses—Revenko and the person who was between me and him—have it open on their screens. The phone is ringing constantly: ‘change this,’ ‘drop that.’ ”
In fall, 2013, she said, she was writing copy for a story on protests that had broken out in Ukraine—in a few months, these would grow into a revolution. “I typed the word ‘protesters,’ and Revenko called me to say, ‘Where do you get off calling them protesters?’ ” He directed Kurbangaleeva to call them Nazi collaborators instead. (Revenko, who is now a member of the Russian parliament and one of the leaders of Putin’s United Russia Party, declined to talk to me for this article.) After Russia occupied Crimea, anchors and reporters were directed to call the act “reunification,” never an “annexation.” Kurbangaleeva told me that she did what she could, for example, by using the term “Ukrainian authorities” even when copy she had received used the word “junta.” But when Russian-backed troops in Eastern Ukraine, using Russian missiles, allegedly shot down a Malaysian airliner in 2014, Kurbangaleeva said on air that the plane had been downed by a Ukrainian fighter jet. Soon after, she quit and left the country.
I talked to several people who had quit. All of them said that they should have left sooner. One former correspondent said that it took him several years of therapy to be able to resign. Another person, who worked as a news writer at Russia One for more than a decade, told me that for years she tried and failed to do something else. “I realize now that I am an ideal state-television worker,” she told me. “I am apolitical, uninterested in politics at all. That is the kind of citizen this regime cultivates.” She quit as soon as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began and is now studying to change her profession.
Katie Bernstein and Clara Mokri’s new documentary, “Anchored Out,” centers on a community of dozens of people who live on boats anchored in Richardson Bay, a shallow estuary rimmed by the well-to-do Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The “anchor-outs,” as they are known, are a motley crew—free spirits, artists, literal drifters, refugees from the high cost of living on land. Richardson Bay has long been a hub for the Bay Area’s bohemian and arts scenes; it was here that Otis Redding, during a stay on a friend’s houseboat, wrote the first verse of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Today, the anchor-outs’ existence on the water faces a threat. Under pressure from the state, the Richardson Bay Regional Agency (R.B.R.A.), which serves parts of Marin County, has hired a series of harbormasters to enforce a long-ignored rule defining the bay as a seventy-two-hour anchorage. The anchor-outs must leave the bay or risk having their boats towed and, in some cases, destroyed.
“Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” Bob Dylan once sang, but in this tale of haves and have-nots it’s the latter who do most of the swearing. In the film, the harbormaster Curtis Havel comes in for a fair bit of verbal abuse as he makes his rounds on the water to inform boaters of the seventy-two-hour rule. “Don’t ever touch my shit again! Ever!” one irate anchor-out yells at him, bitterly complaining that Havel “stole” one of his boats. “You’re a lousy person, man! . . . I will have your ass in a sling!” Another anchor-out observes, of the harbormaster, “He does get screamed at quite a bit.” This remark draws a chuckle from a third anchor-out, the sixtysomething Joe (Einstein) Bernstein, who features prominently in the film. Einstein has a weathered face, a gap-toothed smile, and a tremendous head of omnidirectional white hair, which is perhaps the reason for his nickname. He also has a philosophical bent. “There are righteous people out here,” he says, of his community. “They shouldn’t have to lose what they own.” At one point, Einstein sheds his usual genial, somewhat bemused demeanor to fire up his boat’s engine and chase after Havel, shouting, “Why don’t you take a hike, asshole? . . . Who’re you gonna go bother next, some poor woman? Or how ’bout an old man?”
“I was actually surprised by how much conflict we witnessed first hand during our filming,” Katie Bernstein, who is not related to the anchor-out, told me over e-mail. But society’s problems don’t stop at the water’s edge. Mokri, Bernstein’s colleague, wrote, “The conflict in Richardson Bay IS the affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area. The NIMBY-ism and way in which society treats people who are struggling just to keep a roof over their heads is an issue across the entire country.” Bernstein added, “The story brings up a lot of tensions and questions about who is allowed to exist where, and what a wealthy society like ours should provide for its citizens. Is it access to clean water? Bathrooms? Safe housing? Or nothing if you can’t afford to pay for it? And what if a self-directed choice is dangerous to the person who chooses it?” (Havel, the harbormaster, asserts in the film that “the large majority” of the anchor-outs’ boats “are inoperable and therefore unsafe vessels,” and that this is why they must be removed. He quit his job shortly after the film was finished.)
“It’s all about money, guns, and lawyers,” Joe Tate, who lives on a houseboat docked in Sausalito, near the entrance to the bay, says in the film. Tate, the son of a Mississippi River tugboat pilot, first came to Richardson Bay in 1967, and is a veteran of an earlier conflict there that in many ways foreshadowed the one playing out today: in the seventies, the R.B.R.A. sought to remove some of the houseboats that had been set up in the area, and Tate and others pushed back, with some success. Tate is sympathetic to the anchor-outs but not optimistic about their prospects. “It’s just a matter of getting the pesky anchor-outs out of the way,” he tells the camera. “You watch and see. They’re gonna get rid of all of them. They’re gonna put mooring balls out there. And they’re gonna have millionaire boats tied up to ’em. That’s what’s coming.” And that is how money swears.
Last week, federal prosecutors arrested a fifty-year-old Long Island man and accused him of defrauding hundreds of investors by offering them gains of five per cent per week—yes, per week—from a fictional crypto-trading platform. “Eddy Alexandre allegedly induced his clients to invest over $59 million with promises of huge passive income returns,” Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said, in announcing the indictment. “In reality, no such technology existed, as Alexandre is alleged to have invested very little of their money—most of which he lost—and transferred most of it to his own personal accounts to pay for luxury items for himself.”
Alexandre is presumed innocent until proved otherwise, of course. In an initial court appearance, a judge freed him to home confinement on a bond of three million dollars. But the indictment came during what is increasingly looking like the unwinding of the great crypto “bezzle.” The term comes from John Kenneth Galbraith’s classic account of the 1929 stock-market crash, and it refers to the “inventory of undiscovered embezzlement” that builds up during speculative booms, when investors become ever more credulous and rising prices create the appearance that real wealth is being created. In this halcyon part of the cycle, Galbraith noted, “the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly enough, feels no loss. There is a net increase in psychic wealth.” It is only after the inevitable crash occurs that many of the swindles, and alleged swindles, come to light.
The day before Alexandre’s arrest, Europol, the E.U.’s law-enforcement agency, placed Ruja Ignatova, the German inventor of the OneCoin cryptocurrency, on its most-wanted list, for “having induced investors all over the world to invest in this actually worthless ‘currency,’ ” which has produced a total loss that “probably amounts to several billion” dollars. Earlier this year, the F.B.I. arrested a New York couple and accused them of helping launder billions of dollars in stolen bitcoin.
Most crypto swindles, though, are on the smaller end of the spectrum. U.S. News & World Report recently ran an article about the “5 Top Crypto Scams to Watch in 2022.” The list includes some traditional tactics for illicitly relieving rubes of their money, such as pump-and-dump schemes and phishing for passwords. It also describes new, more novel schemes, including the “pig butchering” crypto scam, which often involves an attractive person approaching you online and offering you spectacularly lucrative crypto investments. The Department of Justice, in a sign of the breadth of the problem, has set up a new cryptocurrency-enforcement team, and the Securities and Exchange Commission announced earlier this month that it is doubling the size of its cyber division. In a press release, the agency said the new hires would investigate securities-laws violations related to “Crypto asset offerings; Crypto asset exchanges; Crypto asset lending and staking products; Decentralized finance (‘DeFi’) platforms; Non-fungible tokens (‘NFTs’); and Stablecoins.”
Despite the proliferation of scams, and the fact that drug dealers and extortionists have long been among the most enthusiastic adopters of Bitcoin, it would be unfair to dismiss the entire crypto phenomenon as a fraud. Some of the early enthusiasts, and perhaps even the original developer of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto—whoever she, he, or they are—seem to have genuinely believed in the vision of a peer-to-peer monetary system that would replace fiat money. The goal of disintermediating major financial institutions, and eliminating (or, at least, sharply reducing) some of their onerous fees, remains a worthy one. So does the idea of providing an alternative for people in countries that don’t have a stable currency. Moreover, it’s important to distinguish between scams and legitimate business ventures that seek to promote and exploit the growing public interest in crypto assets, such as Coinbase, MicroStrategy, and Silvergate Capital, all of which now trade on the stock market. There is no suggestion that they have broken any laws.
But, ever since big money got in on the crypto game—venture-capital firms, hedge funds, and, lately, some of the big Wall Street banks themselves—there has been a great deal of expensively produced puffery and flimflam surrounding the entire industry, encapsulated by the “Don’t Miss Out on Crypto” ad for the FTX trading platform, which featured Larry David and ran during the Super Bowl. The over-all aim was to make crypto investing seem mainstream and draw in gullible investors who feared they were being left on the sidelines.
Following gyrations last week of the TerraUSD stablecoin, and the evisceration of the Luna cryptocurrency that’s linked to it, investors’ willingness to swallow hot air appears to be diminishing. “Hyped and leveraged areas of crypto . . . are seeing mass liquidations, as it is becoming clearer that all the elevated prices were traded on speculation, with limited real user demand,” Morgan Stanley said, in a research report published late last week. N.F.T.s could be the next crypto asset to watch, the report added, noting that the only reason many investors bought these assets was because they thought prices were going higher.
That’s what happens in a speculative bubble: people follow the trend blindly. Only subsequently do they ask some of the questions they should have asked earlier, such as: What use does the object of speculation really serve? In a highly informative explainer that was published on Monday, Emily Stewart, a writer at Vox, points out that crypto enthusiasts have yet to answer this question persuasively.
If a cryptocurrency is money, it should fulfill three functions that money has always fulfilled: serving as a unit of account, a means of exchange, and a store of value. Like shells in Native American societies and cigarettes in prisons, cryptocurrencies can serve as units of account, but what about the other two uses? Stewart pointed out that transactional costs associated with spending crypto are frequently substantial. On Monday, the Financial Times published an interview with Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the FTX crypto-trading exchange, in which he said bitcoin doesn’t have a future as a means of payment because it is too complicated and environmentally costly. (Because of the extensive computations involved in digital mining for bitcoin, the cryptocurrency famously uses more energy than Argentina.) “Things that you’re doing millions of transactions a second with have to be extremely efficient and lightweight and lower energy cost,” Bankman-Fried said.
How about crypto as a reliable store of value? A year ago, the price of a bitcoin was $43,580. Last July, it fell below $30,000; in November, it hit $67,500; now it is back to about $30,000. The value of Ethereum, the second largest cryptocurrency, has gyrated as well. Some investors who got in years ago and held on have made fortunes, but anyone who bought cryptocurrencies within the past twelve months is likely sitting on substantial losses. And that’s not counting the folks who have fallen victim to outright swindles.
What happens next? After a market crashes, the trust and laxity that characterize the boom period get reversed, Galbraith wrote. “Money is watched with a narrow, suspicious eye. . . . Audits are penetrating and meticulous. . . . The bezzle shrinks.” For crypto promoters—the ones that operate on both sides of the law—there could be more tough times ahead.
Laurence Tribe, who turned eighty last year, has been one of the most prominent liberal legal scholars of the last half century. A professor to John Roberts, a mentor to Barack Obama, and an advocate who has appeared dozens of times before the Supreme Court, Tribe has also published numerous books about the Constitution and the Court’s history. More recently, Tribe—despite the reverence with which he initially wrote about the Court—has been highly critical of what he sees as its increasing rightward tilt and politicization by Republican-nominated Justices. Tribe has also established himself as a prolific commenter on current affairs, both on television and Twitter (where he has more than a million followers), specifically by making caustic attacks on former President Donald Trump, whom he has accused of committing multiple crimes.
I recently spoke by phone with Tribe, currently the Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard, several days after the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that argued for overturning Roe v. Wade. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed his impressions of Justice Roberts throughout the decades, his changing views of the Court’s role in American life, and how he looks back on his controversial work for the coal industry.
How has your thinking about the Supreme Court as an institution changed over the past fifty years?
I would say that because I am part of the generation that grew up in the glow of Brown v. Board of Education and of the Warren and Brennan Court, and identified the Court really with making representative government work better through the reapportionment decisions and protecting minorities of various kinds. I saw the Court through rather rose-tinted glasses for a while. As I taught the Court for decades, I came to spend more time on the dark periods of the Court’s history, thinking about how the Court really preserved and protected corporate power and wealth more than it protected minorities through much of our history, and how it essentially gutted the efforts at Reconstruction, and I focussed more on cases like Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu.
And in recent years, as the Court has turned back to its characteristic posture of protecting those who don’t need much protection from the political process but who already have lots of political power, I became more and more concerned about its anti-democratic and anti-human-rights record. I continued to want to make sense of the Court’s doctrines. I wrote a treatise that got very frequently cited around the world and that shaped my teaching about how the Court’s ideas in various areas could be pulled together. But then, after I had done the second edition of that treatise, and it became relied on by a lot of people, I decided [after the first volume] of the third edition, basically, to stop that project.
What were you arguing in the first two editions?
The first was the first effort in probably a hundred years to pull together all of constitutional law. And it led to a rebirth, or flowering, of lots of writing about constitutional law, and writing more focussed on methodology, with different forms of interpretation. I was very excited about that project, and [the second edition] continued it. Most of what I did was to see connections among different areas. I would be writing about commercial regulation, and I would see themes that popped up in areas of civil rights and civil liberties. Or I’d be writing about separation of powers, and I would see problems that arose elsewhere.
And I was always trying to find coherence, because my background in mathematics had led me to be very interested in the deep structures of things. I was working on a Ph.D. in algebraic topology when I rather abruptly shifted from mathematics to law. And so, in my treatise, I developed what I thought of as seven different models of constitutional law. I’m always fascinated by different perspectives and lenses and models. I’ve never thought of law and politics as strictly separate, and efforts by people like Steve Breyer to say that we shouldn’t concede that constitutional law is largely political have always seemed to me to be misleading. That said, I still saw efforts at consistency and concerns about avoiding hypocrisy from the Court. But those things began getting harder to take seriously.
And then Steve Breyer wrote me a long letter saying, “When are you going to finish the third edition of your treatise?” And I wrote him a letter back, which then was published in various places, saying, “I’m not going to keep doing it. And here’s why.” It was a letter that described how I thought constitutional law had really lost its coherence.
At one level, you’re saying something really changed with the Court. But earlier you said that the Court has always had some history of protecting the powerful and not protecting minority rights or the powerless. So did something change, or did the Court just have this brief period, after the Second World War, when you saw it as different before returning to its normal posture?
I think there’s always been a powerful ideological stream, but the ascendant ideology in the nineteen-sixties and seventies was one that I could easily identify with. It was the ideology that said the relatively powerless deserve protection, by an independent branch of government, from those who would trample on them.
Right. The Warren Court was also ideological; it just happened to be an ideology that you or I might agree with.
Exactly. No question. It was quite ideological. Justice Brennan had a project whose architecture was really driven by his sense of the purposes of the law, and those purposes were moral and political. No question about it. I’m not saying that somehow the liberal take on constitutional law is free of ideology. There was, however, an intellectually coherent effort to connect the ideology with the whole theory of what the Constitution was for and what the Court was for. Mainly, the Court is an anti-majoritarian branch, and it’s there to protect minorities and make sure that people are fairly represented. I could identify with that ideology. It made sense to me, and I could see elements of it in various areas of doctrine. But as that fell apart, and as the Court reverted to a very different ideology, one in which the Court was essentially there to protect propertied interests and to protect corporations and to keep the masses at bay—that’s an ideology, too, but it was not being elaborated in doctrine in a way that I found even coherent, let alone attractive.
Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I see more internal contradiction and inconsistency in the strands of doctrine of the people who came back into power with the Reagan Administration and the Federalist Society. I’m not the person to make sense of what they’re doing, because it doesn’t hang together for me. Even if I could play the role that I think I did play with a version that I find more morally attractive, it’s a project that I would regard as somewhat evil and wouldn’t want to take part in.
I’m not trying to paint the picture that says everything was pure logic and mathematics and apolitical and morally neutral in the good days of the Warren Era, and incoherent and ideologically driven in other times. I think that would be an unfair contrast. So I hope what I’ve said to you makes it a little clearer.
You wrote a rather striking piece in The New York Review of Books recently, called “Politicians in Robes,” where you take issue with Breyer essentially still believing that the Court can be apolitical. How should we view the Court now? I think that there is a tendency to say, “These guys are politicians, and they make partisan choices the way anyone else does.”
It was 9 P.M., and Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist, was pacing back and forth in the newsroom of Rappler, the news site she co-founded a decade ago. The polls in the Philippines had closed two hours earlier, and about half the votes had been counted. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the son and namesake of the former Philippine dictator, was leading by a margin so wide it was clear he would soon be President.
Across the newsroom, the reality was sinking in. Rappler journalists, most of them in their twenties, had reported on the campaign with courage and verve, posting videos, stories, and updates on their site and on multiple social-media platforms. Most important, Rappler had helped launch an innovative network of journalists, fact checkers, lawyers, activists, and academics to identify, track, and expose disinformation to voters. The outcome of the election would determine the future of Philippine democracy, and Rappler’s, too.
Marcos, Jr., had campaigned on a promise of restoring what he falsely claimed was the golden age of his father’s rule. He portrayed himself as the avenging prince, fighting to reclaim the power that had been unjustly wrested from his father. Ferdinand Marcos and his First Lady, Imelda, in fact, had enacted martial law, jailed dissidents, killed and disappeared thousands, plundered the treasury, and left the country in economic ruin. Like his father, who referred to critical journalists as “mosquitos,” he showed little patience for an inquiring press.
“They did it,” Ressa said, as early returns showed a landslide victory for the former dictator’s son who had whitewashed his father’s repressive rule. “They did it.”
Marcos, Jr.,’s running mate, and the country’s next Vice-President, was Sara Duterte, the daughter of the outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, barred from seeking reëlection. In his nearly six years in office, Duterte, a strongman populist who excelled at manipulating social media, had muzzled the press, jailed critics, and launched a war on drugs that left thousands dead and filled Manila’s sprawling shantytowns with corpses.
Rappler’s journalists reported on the cruel excesses of that war, which included thousands of extrajudicial killings by police and unknown gunmen, and exposed Duterte’s well-oiled online disinformation machine, which demonized dissenters and amplified the President’s call for blood. For Rappler, the blowback was swift: first online, mostly on Facebook, with a deluge of insults and threats to its reporters and Ressa in particular. Then came a barrage of lawsuits, so many that if the potential jail sentences from them were added up, Ressa would be imprisoned for more than a hundred years.
In 2019, Ressa was arrested by plainclothes officers who came to the Rappler office. She was detained overnight and posted bail, but, a month later, at the Manila airport, when she arrived home from an overseas trip, she was arrested again. In the newsroom, there was fear and dread. Editors stationed guards outside the Rappler office, in a suburban mall, and prepared the staff for more arrests and possible closure.
The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded last December, lifted morale in the newsroom and earned Rappler global acclaim. Duterte, now a lame duck, came under attack for corruption and the ineptitude of his pandemic response. As campaigning began in earnest, the country’s pro-democracy groups, battered by Duterte’s rule, coalesced around the candidacy of Maria Leonor Robredo, the current Vice-President. Her call for a more caring, transparent, and responsive government drew record crowds. Tens of thousands of youthful campaign volunteers believed a “pink revolution” was sweeping the country—pink was Robredo’s campaign color.
Ressa graduated from Princeton in 1986, the year that angry citizens chased the Marcos family out of the Presidential palace and forced them into exile. Inspired by “people power”—an uprising where nuns praying the rosary and young women offering flowers stopped Marcos’s troops from firing at protesters—she returned to the Philippines to work as a journalist. Like many Filipinos of her generation, she believed that the Philippines, a nation of a hundred and ten million that is the oldest democracy in Southeast Asia, had rid itself of strongman rule.
For seventy-seven years, Finland’s frontier with Russia has been peaceful. The border runs from the Baltic Sea through windswept farmlands and the Lapland wilderness to the frozen Arctic. It is, in places, just a farm fence designed to control wandering reindeer more than to thwart invading soldiers. Blue-and-white posts mark the Finnish side; red-and-green posts signify Russian soil. Both governments have encouraged cross-border tourism and economic ties to help “people to learn the basics of peaceful co-existence,” as the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs says on its Web site. The Nordic nation resisted joining other Europeans in NATO; high-speed trains connect Helsinki to St. Petersburg. Since the Second World War, “Finlandization” has been synonymous with neutrality worldwide.
Then Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. In a whirlwind policy reversal, Finland announced, on Sunday, that it will seek membership in NATO. “This is a historic day,” President Sauli Niinistö said, at a press conference. “A new era begins.” On Tuesday, the Finnish Parliament voted 188–8 to join the alliance. If Finland is accepted, its eight-hundred-mile border will become NATO’s longest boundary with Russia, more than doubling the length of Europe’s front line. Sweden has followed suit. “We’re now facing a fundamentally changed security environment in Europe,” the Swedish Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson, said, on Sunday. “The Kremlin has shown that they are prepared to use violence to achieve their political objectives and that they don’t hesitate to take enormous risks.”
The joint decision, three months into the war in Ukraine, reflects Europe’s fears about Putin’s long-term intentions—and the uncertain prospect of any real peaceful coexistence. For years, support within Finland for joining NATO had dipped to as low as twenty per cent. It jumped to fifty-three per cent in February, to sixty-two in March, and to a record high of seventy-six per cent this month, according to surveys conducted by Taloustutkimus for the Yle news agency. The leap is similar in Stockholm, where security doctrine has long avoided participating in military alliances. For the first time, the majority in Sweden, which has not been at war since the Napoleonic era, favor NATO membership.
NATO has embraced the two Northern European countries, which together form a strategic landmass. (Finland is about the size of Montana, and Sweden is slightly larger than California.) Rose Gottemoeller, a former deputy secretary-general of NATO and U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, called it a “major strategic defeat for Russia, turning the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake.” The decision sends a powerful message that “aggression does not pay,” NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, told reporters, over the weekend. “President Putin wants Ukraine defeated. NATO down. North America and Europe divided.” Instead, NATO is stronger than ever. And Europe and the United States are more united. Ukraine, he also boldly predicted, “can win this war.” On Sunday, NATO’s foreign ministers met with their Finnish and Swedish counterparts in Berlin. Afterward, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there is “very strong consensus” for bringing Finland and Sweden into the alliance, despite a threat by Turkey to block them. The Biden Administration will host the leaders of Finland and Sweden and also their defense officials in Washington this week, while Blinken will meet with his Turkish counterpart at the U.N.
For the Nordic neighbors, the reversal may seem like a no-brainer. Putin “trolled us,” René Nyberg, a former Finnish Ambassador to Russia who later led a group promoting Finnish industry in Russia, told me. Putin’s duplicity—a “propaganda assault” invoking NATO as a pretext to seize Ukraine—“caused this enlargement,” he said. A detailed assessment by the Swedish foreign ministry concluded that Russia’s aggression reflected “a structural, long-term and significant deterioration of the security environment in Europe and globally.”
Yet the response by Finland and Sweden to what they view as an existential danger has also spawned one of the fiercest debates since the end of the Cold War about the world’s mightiest military alliance. One of NATO’s earliest critics was George F. Kennan, the architect of the U.S.’s “containment” strategy to isolate the Soviet Union. In an Op-Ed for the Times, in 1997, he warned that NATO expansion after the Soviets’ demise “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” It could inflame nationalist, anti-Western, and militaristic tendencies in Russia, have an adverse effect on nascent Russian democracy, and hinder arms-control agreements. Today the debate is even more complicated.
For some, the way NATO agreed, in 1994, to welcome former Soviet allies “betrayed a catastrophic failure of imagination,” Daniel Treisman, a Russia expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, told me. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland—three former Warsaw Pact members aligned with Moscow—joined in 1999. “The major international challenge of the nineteen-nineties was to integrate Russia securely into the Western world,” Treisman said. The West should have generated new financial, commercial, cultural, and political links—and new European security arrangements—to complement NATO. “If we had succeeded in that, the security of Eastern Europe would have taken care of itself,” he said. Instead, the West failed to understand how Moscow would perceive NATO’s guns edging eastward. Seven other nations, including three former Soviet republics and three more Warsaw Pact countries, became members in 2004. Discussion about adding Ukraine and Georgia, which began in 2008—long before either qualified for membership—also invited Putin “to call our bluff,” Treisman said. Four other countries joined between 2009 and 2020. Thirty nations, together, now have nearly four times more military personnel than Russia and also many more tanks, warplanes, and artillery. The Kremlin, however, has a larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons near Europe’s borders.
Even long-time supporters of U.S. and European security guarantees for Finland and Sweden are concerned about the consequences of the two northern nations joining the alliance. “Over all, Russia certainly loses here. But a weak and humiliated Russia is a dangerous Russia,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning at the State Department who is now the chief executive of the New America think tank, told me. She cited the history of a “weak and humiliated” Germany between the world wars that opened the way for Hitler’s rise to power and aggression across Europe. “Putin may well be able to stay in power for even longer on the strength of ‘the foreign enemy’ encroaching on Russia’s borders,” she said.
Slaughter added, “What is driving me crazy right now is the unspoken assumptions that are driving these choices, and that will once again block true pan-European security.” Taking tangible steps to support Ukraine, Finland, Sweden, and other European countries that legitimately feel threatened by Putin shouldn’t preclude attempts to further integrate Europe and Russia, which has been a major player on the Continent since 1648. Meanwhile, countries excluded from NATO “have less and less chance of ever being admitted to the charmed circle of ‘the West,’ and have less and less hope of being supported in their own struggles for decent democratic government,” Slaughter said.
Others, in a “realist” foreign-policy camp, believe that the United States should focus its clout, diplomacy, and resources on big-power rivalries and existential challenges. “The climate crisis is becoming an afterthought. China now takes a back seat to a vastly exaggerated Russian ‘threat,’ ” Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and the president of the Quincy Institute, told me. Putin’s invasion has hijacked the U.S. national-security agenda, preëmpting a “much-needed debate about the wisdom of NATO expansion,” Bacevich said. “Passions take priority over strategy.”
The 2022 midterm elections will be a referendum on the current President, Joe Biden, and his predecessor, Donald J. Trump—as well as a profound test of American democracy. The midterm primaries began on March 1st, in Texas, and will continue through the fall, allowing voters in each state to narrow the field in races for the House, Senate, and governors’ mansions before the campaigns culminate in the general election, on November 8th. Although Biden won’t be on the ballot in November, Americans’ judgment of his first two years in office, when he faced a resurgent pandemic, the highest inflation in decades, and deep divisions within his own party, will be reflected in the results. The midterms will also provide the latest evidence of whether Trump, the man Biden drove from office, has asserted complete control over the Republican Party—and is succeeding in his continuing effort to undermine trust in elections. If candidates who endorse Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen win control of state offices, Trump and his supporters could be poised to challenge the outcome of the 2024 Presidential election.
Control of the House and Senate will be decided as well, and history is against the Democrats. The party of the sitting President has typically lost seats in Congress after his first two years in office. If Democrats lose their narrow majority in the House or Senate, Biden’s ability to enact significant legislation will be blocked. And Republicans, if they gain control of the House, will not continue the work of the Select Committee investigating Trump’s role in the storming of Congress, by his supporters, on January 6, 2021.
The New Yorker will publish election results, as reported by the Associated Press, as well as news coverage and commentary, throughout the 2022 campaign.