Article of the Day: 11/10/20 Prof. Heather Cox Richardson Post

Heather Cox RichardsonNov 10

I had hoped that the days when the news came like a firehose were over, but so far, no luck. 

This morning, the stock market jumped 1200 points in its first day of trading after the announcement of Biden’s election. Over the course of the day it was up as much as 1600 points, then ended for the day with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 834.57 points, or 2.95%.

The strong market is at least in part because pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the German drug company BioNTech announced today they have a coronavirus vaccine which appears to be about 90% effective. The Trump administration immediately tried to take credit for the vaccine, only to have Pfizer note that it has not taken federal money under Trump’s Operation Warp Speed for rushing a coronavirus vaccine. Don Jr. promptly suggested that the delay in announcing the potential vaccine until this week was designed to hurt Trump’s reelection, but it seems Pfizer is likely distancing itself from Trump to avoid any suggestion that the vaccine is about politics, rather than science. In the past, the administration has touted a number of treatments for Covid-19 that have turned out to be ineffective, and the pressure for a vaccine before the election threatened to weaken public faith in one. 

The pandemic continues to worsen across the country. Today we learned that Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has tested positive for the virus; so has David Bossie, the Trump adviser in charge of the campaign’s legal challenges to the election loss. Both men were at the election night watch party at the White House, along with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who was infected at the time and did not wear a mask. Aides told PBS NewsHour reporter Yamiche Alcindor that they were worried the event would be a superspreader, but felt pressured to attend.

President-Elect Joe Biden started his presidential transition today, beginning by announcing the makeup of his coronavirus task force. It’s an impressive group of doctors and scientists, including Dr. Rick Bright, a whistleblower fired by Trump officials. “Please, I implore you, wear a mask,” Biden told Americans. “A mask is not a political statement…. The goal is to get back to normal as fast as possible.”

New leadership and the rising infection rates are shifting the conversation. Last night, Utah’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert announced a state of emergency. He has imposed a statewide mask mandate indefinitely and a ban on social gatherings outside of households for the next two weeks. He has limited extracurricular activities at schools. Businesses that don’t follow the mask mandate can be fined; organizers who ignore the social gathering rule can be prosecuted and fined up to $10,000. 

Not everyone likes the idea of new leadership, though. In an unprecedented move, Trump is refusing to acknowledge that he has lost the election. He has launched lawsuits challenging the ballot counting in a number of states, and his surrogates—including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany—are accusing the Democrats of cheating. Tonight, Attorney General William Barr legitimized the idea of voter fraud by permitting federal prosecutors to investigate such allegations. Barr’s move prompted the head of the Election Crimes Branch of the Department of Justice, Richard Pilger, to resign.

But what’s so weird about this is that they are losing all these lawsuits. Indeed, some of them they’re not even trying to win: they’re not bothering to fill out the correct paperwork. It seems clear that they are simply stoking the narrative of an unfair election, but it is not at all clear to me to what end. 

It is certainly possible that Trump and his people are launching a coup, as observers warn. And yet, this would not be an easy task. Biden’s win is not a few votes here or there; it is commanding, and Trump’s aides are telling reporters they think the game is played out. The military has already said it wants no part of getting involved in the election, and the courts so far are siding against the administration entirely. Even key Republican leaders, such as Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor, are denying there has been any problem with the vote.

Maybe what’s at stake is that last Tuesday’s election left control of the Senate hanging on two runoff elections in Georgia. Today the Republican candidates in those races tagged on to the cries of voter fraud to call for Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign. Raffensberger is the top elections official in the state. He is a Republican. There is no evidence of any irregularity in the 2020 Georgia election, and the two senators did not offer any. But if they can get Democratic votes thrown out, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler might avoid the runoffs that look like they might well result in Democratic victories.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is determined to keep control of the Senate, and ginning up a conviction that the election was rigged could do that. McConnell defended Trump’s challenging of the election today, although he did not explicitly say he believed the election had been fraudulent. Trump’s attacks are working: new polling shows that 7 out of 10 Republican voters now think that the 2020 election was illegitimate. Barr met with McConnell before he signed onto the idea of voter fraud by announcing that federal prosecutors could go after it.

Still, while control of the Senate is likely driving McConnell, it seems highly unlikely that Trump cares about it. Perhaps the president is simply deep in a narcissistic rage, unable to face the idea of losing. 

But there is something else niggling at me.

Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s win means that the current administration is denying him the right to see the President’s Daily Briefing (the PDB) which explains the biggest security threats facing the country and the latest intelligence information. Trump can keep Biden from seeing other classified information, too. 

Today, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper (by announcing the firing on Twitter), and replaced him with a loyalist, Christopher C. Miller, who will be “acting” only. Trump also selected a loyalist and Republican political operative, Michael Ellis, to become the general counsel at the National Security Agency, our top spy agency, over the wishes of intelligence officials. Ellis was the chief counsel to Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA), a staunch Trump loyalist. Trump is also reportedly considering firing FBI director Christopher Wray and CIA director Gina Haspel. Last week, he quietly fired the leaders of the agencies that oversee our nuclear weapons, international aid, and electricity and natural gas regulation, although the last of those officials was moved to a different spot in the administration. 

In other words, Trump is cleaning out the few national security leaders who were not complete lackeys and replacing them with people who are. It’s funny timing for such a shake-up, especially one that will destabilize the country, making us more vulnerable.

Today Washington Post diplomacy and national security reporter John Hudson noted that a source told him that the “Trump administration just gave Congress formal notification for a massive arms transfer to the United Arab Emirates: 50 F-35s, 18 MQ-9 Reapers with munitions; a $10 billion munitions package including thousands of Mk 82 dumb bombs, guided bombs, missiles & more….” This deal comes two months after the administration’s Abraham Accord normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE opened the way for arms sales. 

The UAE has wanted the F-35 for years; it is the world’s most advanced fighter jet. They cost about $100 million apiece. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has secretly been pushing for the sale of the arms to the UAE in the face of fierce opposition by government agencies and lawmakers.

The administration had announced a much smaller version of this deal at the end of October, in a sale that would amount to about $10 billion, but Congress worried about the weaponry falling into the hands of China or Russia and seemed unlikely to let the sale happen. In 2019, it stopped such a deal. Trump declared a national emergency in order to go around Congress and sell more than $8 billion of weapons to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. He later fired Steven Linick, the State Department’s inspector general looking into those sales, but when the IG’s report came out nonetheless, it was scathing, suggesting that they put the U.S. at risk of being prosecuted for war crimes.

When you remember that Trump’s strong suit has always been distraction, and that he has always used the presidency as a money-making venture, I wonder if we need to factor those characteristics in when we think about his unprecedented and dangerous refusal to admit he has lost this election.

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Article of the Day: 10/30/20–Professor Heather Cox Richardson

I believe it’s importnat to be a fact-based citizen. Accordingly, I am posting Professor Richardson’s Blog Posts:

October 29, 2020 Heather Cox RichardsonOct 30Four years ago, headlines across the country announced that FBI Director James Comey had sent a letter to Congress on October 28 saying that the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State. That announcement, made despite the Justice Department’s policy of taking care not to do anything that could affect an election, swung the election toward Donald Trump, who won. Four years later, Trump’s attempt to seed another “investigation” into his rival through the “discovery” of a compromising laptop has fizzled. Today, NBC News noted that a document purporting to show Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden in a corrupt relationship with Communist leaders in China was actually ghost written by an academic and published under a fake identity. Meanwhile, a record number of 80 million early ballots have already been cast, and we are all parsing the polls for clues about who will emerge as the winner of the 2020 election.What is clear is that, as we approach the end of the campaigns, each is reflecting its presidential candidate. This morning, the New York Times revealed that Trump and Attorney General William Barr worked together to try to stop a criminal investigation into a bank owned by the Turkish state. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, was preparing a case against Halkbank, which the government suspected was laundering money and sending billions of dollars to Iran, in violation of U.S. sanctions. Investigators believed Iran was using the money to pay for its nuclear weapons program. The case involved President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and members of his family and his political party. In June 2019, Berman was shocked when Barr asked him to end the investigations and let Halkbank get away with paying a fine and admitting some wrongdoing. The story shows Trump undermining American policy to advance his own interests. From the beginning of Trump’s presidency, Turkey worked to gain influence with the new administration, hiring Trump’s former national security adviser Mike Flynn, for example, as a lobbyist. Erdogan had personally lobbied Trump hard to get rid of the Halkbank investigation. Senior officials worried that the president was chatting with an authoritarian leader about a criminal case, in a country where Trump does business. Erdogan had tried unsuccessfully to get the Obama administration to drop the case, but now appeared to be having better luck. Erdogan told reporters that Trump had assured him he would take care of the matter. It was not until Trump and Erdogan clashed over Syria last October that the U.S. charged the bank, but the charges did not include any individuals. Barr fired Berman this summer. Similarly, Trump’s willingness to defend his own interests at others’ expense is showing in the final days of his campaign. It is showing generally, with his willingness to expose his supporters to coronavirus infections at his rallies. It is showing more specifically with Trump’s refusal to support endangered Republican Senators who have stood by him and lost support because of it. At Trump’s recent visit to Maine, he did not mention Senator Susan Collins, who is in a tight race with her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon. In Arizona, Trump mocked vulnerable senator Martha McSally. “Martha, just come up fast. Fast. Fast. Come on. Quick. You got one minute!” Trump said, as the senator rushed to the stage for some airtime with the president. “One minute, Martha! They don’t want to hear this, Martha. Come on. Let’s go. Quick, quick, quick. Come on. Let’s go.” Trump gave McSally just 60 seconds to speak before turning the microphone over to other national figures. A recent endorsement of the president was damning. The publisher of the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, urged people to vote for Trump only because he claimed Biden’s policies would “strike at the economic well-being of the country.” As for Trump himself, the editorial acknowledged, he “is a bully and a bigot…. He panders to racists and prevents sensible immigration reform in a nation built on immigrant labor and intellect. He tweets conspiracy theories. He’s cavalier about Covid-19 and has led poorly through the pandemic. He seeks to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without proposing a replacement. He denies climate change.”Even such a half-hearted endorsement drew rebuttals from an editor and a columnist at the paper.The campaign continues to downplay the coronavirus. Tonight, campaign spokesperson Donald Trump, Jr., told Fox News Channel personality Laura Ingraham that the number of deaths from Covid-19 is now “almost nothing, because we’ve gotten control of this.” But today alone, at least 951 Americans died of the coronavirus, and more than 91,000 new cases were reported. Our overall official death total is approaching 230,000. “If things do not change, if they continue on the course we’re on, there’s gonna be a whole lot of pain in this country with regard to additional cases and hospitalizations, and deaths,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday night.Trump has begun to muse about losing the election, and said he would like simply to drive away, or fly away, from the burden of the presidency. Yesterday, retired Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack wrote that, with his immense financial debts and pending legal issues, “Trump appears to be a classic flight risk.”Still, though, the president continues to fire up his base with accusations that Democrats are engaging in voter fraud, and that counting ballots after November 3 will mean a stolen election. His rhetoric is so worrisome that business owners in Washington, D.C., are boarding up their windows and Walmart is pulling guns and ammunition from its shelves (although it will continue to sell them on request).Tonight, both candidates are in Florida, and while Trump could have focused on today’s economic report showing 7% GDP growth in the third quarter, he went all-in with attacks on Hunter Biden and mused about losing.In contrast to Trump’s erratic personality-driven campaign, Biden’s campaign is smooth and professional. Unlike the Trump campaign, it has plenty of money, and is running fun, moving, and professional ads on social media emphasizing unity and healing for the country. In addition to the many other groups breaking in Biden’s favor, early data suggests that young Americans are turning out to vote in record numbers. About 63% of voters from ages 18 to 29 say they support Biden, while only about 25% support Trump.While the polls are suggesting there is little movement in the race, there has been a shift toward Biden in Georgia in the past few days. That shift will likely get a boost from an astonishing moment in a hard-hitting debate last night between embattled incumbent Senator David Perdue, a Republican, and his challenger, Democrat Jon Ossoff. After Perdue attacked Ossoff for taking money from out-of-state donors who support a “radical socialist agenda,” Ossoff countered with a devastating takedown: “Perhaps Senator Perdue would have been able to respond properly to the Covid-19 pandemic if you hadn’t been fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading,” he said. “It’s not just that you’re a crook, Senator, it’s that you’re attacking the health of the people that you represent.” Perdue seemed frozen. The clip has gone viral, and today Perdue pulled out of the final debate scheduled between him and Ossoff. Instead he will join Trump for a rally that night.Biden and Harris are reaching out to Hispanic voters, whose support will matter a lot in southern states. In Florida tonight, at a drive-in event, Biden hammered on Trump’s approach to the pandemic, called for racial justice, and promised that he will not be too hard on Cuba or too soft on Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president. Biden got a boost today from an op-ed in the Miami Herald by Hispanic business and economic leaders who endorsed Biden as the candidate who would build “a stronger, more dynamic economy that works for everyone.” With Hispanic voters extra-concerned about charges of “socialism,” the op-ed’s authors emphasized that Biden is the candidate of “free enterprise.” Today, Biden wrapped together his pitch to Hispanic voters, an appeal to morality and a better future, and an illustration of how a Biden presidency will be different than its predecessor. He promised that, if he is elected president, he will immediately create a task force to reunite the families of the 545 immigrant children still separated from their parents.

Article of the Day: 10/28/20–Professor Heather Cox Richardson on Socialism and Fascism

Heather Cox RichardsonOct 28

During her interview with the vice-presidential candidate on CBS’s 60 Minuteson Sunday, journalist Norah O’Donnell asked Senator Kamala Harris if she would bring a “socialist or progressive perspective” to the White House. Harris burst out laughing before she said “no.” 

Harris’s response has been viewed more than a million times on social media. One person responded “she doesn’t even know she’s into Marxism = socialism = communism.”

Trump and his campaign surrogates, as well as Republican lawmakers, continue to refer to Democrats as “socialists.” In Florida on Friday, Trump said: “We’re not supposed to have a socialist—look we’re not going to be a socialist nation. We’re not going to have a socialist president, especially a female socialist president, we’re not gonna have it, we’re not gonna put up with it.” 

Today, in Lansing, Michigan, Trump warned about the elevation of Harris to the presidency, saying that “Joe’s shot; Kamala, you ready?… She makes Bernie Sanders look like a serious conservative.” Trump seems to be using the term “shot” as the old slang word for “worn out,” but there is no doubt he understands the dual meaning in that word, and is warning that Harris, should she be required to succeed Biden, will be a left-wing radical.

The American obsession with socialism has virtually nothing to do with actual international socialism, which developed in the early twentieth century. International socialism is based on the ideas of political theorist Karl Marx, who believed that, as the working class was crushed under the wealthy during late stage capitalism, it would rise up to take control of the factories, farms, utilities, and so on, taking over the means of production. 

That theory has never been popular in America. While we have had a few socialist mayors, the best a socialist candidate has ever done in an election was when Eugene V. Debs won about 6% of the popular vote in 1912. Even then, while Debs called himself a socialist, it is not clear he was advocating the national takeover of industry so much as calling for the government to work for ordinary Americans, rather than the very wealthy, in a time that looked much like our own.

American “socialism” is a very different thing than what Marx was describing in his theoretical works. Fear of it erupted in the 1870s, long before the rise of international socialism, and it grew out of the peculiar American context of the years after the Civil War. During the war, Republicans had both invented national taxation—including the income tax—and welcomed African American men to the ballot box. This meant that, after the Civil War, for the first time in American history, voting had a direct impact on people’s pocketbooks.

After the war, southern Democrats organized as the Ku Klux Klan to try to stop Black Americans from taking their rightful place in society. They assaulted, raped, and murdered their Black neighbors to keep them from voting. But President Ulysses S. Grant met domestic terrorism with federal authority, established the Department of Justice, and arrested Klan members, driving their movement underground. 

So reactionary whites took a different tack. The same people who had bitterly and publicly complained about Black Americans participating in society as equal to whites began to argue that their problem with Black voting was not about race, but rather about class. They said that they objected to poor voters being able to elect leaders who promised to deliver services or public improvements, like schools and roads, that could be paid for only by taxes, levied on property holders. 

In the South of the post-Civil War years, almost all property holders were white. They argued that Black voting amounted to a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white men to poor Black people. It was, they insisted, “socialism,” or, after workers in Paris created a Commune in 1871, “communism.” 

This is the origin of the American obsession with “socialism,” more than 40 years before Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution.

Since that time, Americans have cried “socialism” whenever ordinary Americans try to use the government to level the economic playing field by calling for business regulation—which will cost tax dollars by requiring bureaucrats—or for schools and roads, or by asking for a basic social safety net. But the public funding of roads and education and health care is not the same thing as government taking over the means of production. Rather it is an attempt to prevent a small oligarchy from using the government to gather power to themselves, cutting off the access of ordinary Americans to resources, a chance to rise, and, ultimately, to equality before the law.

It is striking that O’Donnell felt it appropriate to ask Harris if she is a socialist—and lots of people apparently think that’s a legitimate question—while no one seems to be asking Trump, who is currently in power, if he’s a fascist. 

Fascism is a far-right political ideology born in the early twentieth century. At its heart is the idea of a strong nation, whose people are welded into a unit by militarism abroad and the suppression of opposition at home. While socialism starts from the premise that all members of society are equal, fascists believe that some people are better than others, and those elites should direct all aspects of society. To promote efficiency, fascists believe, business and government should work together to direct production and labor. To make people loyal to the state, fascists promote the idea of a domestic enemy that threatens the country and which therefore must be vanquished to make the nation great. The idea of a hierarchy of men leads to the defense of a dictatorial leader who comes to embody the nation. 

Trump has certainly rallied far-right thugs to his side. At his first debate with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, he told the far-right Proud Boys to “stand by,” and last week a study warned that five U.S. states are at risk for election-related armed violence by right-wing terrorists who have already threatened elected officials. 

Today, Trump repeatedly attacked Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer at his rally in Lansing. Whitmer was a target of right-wing extremists who plotted to kidnap her and put her on trial for “treason,” and she has asked him repeatedly to stop riling up his followers against her. He has also weaponized government police for his own ends, sending them into the streets to bash peaceful protesters in a campaign he insists, in an echo of fascist leaders, will produce “law and order.”

He has certainly behaved as if some Americans are better than others, telling us that we simply must accept more than 225,000 deaths from coronavirus even as we know that those deaths disproportionately hit the elderly and Black and Brown Americans. Over the past week, the U.S has reported more than 500,000 new cases—a record—while Trump claimed credit today for “ENDING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.” He uses images of himself as a strongman, insists he has handled his job perfectly, and increasingly uses our public property as props for dramatic videos and photoshoots. 

He is purging the public service of career officials and replacing them with loyalists. Recently, he issued an Executive Order stripping public servants of their civil service protections so he can fire those who are insufficiently loyal and fill their posts with cronies. Last night, his hand-picked head of Voice of America, Michael Pack, scrapped a federal regulation giving editorial freedom to the U.S. media outlets under the VOA umbrella. Pack wants editorial control, to turn the public outlet into a mouthpiece for Trump. Former VOA director Amanda Bennett told NPR she was “stunned” at his actions, which remove “the one thing that makes Voice of America distinct from broadcasters of repressive regimes.” 

He has set up Muslims and immigrants as scapegoats, and has increasingly threatened Democrats, saying they should not be allowed to win the upcoming election, an election he has threatened to ignore unless he wins.

It’s a frightening list, no?

But for all that, Trump is an aspiring oligarch, rather than a fascist. He has no driving ideology except money and sees the country as a piggy bank rather than as a juggernaut for national greatness. Still, that his drive for power comes from a different place than fascism makes it no less dangerous to our democracy. 

Over the next few years, we are going to have to have hard conversations about the role of government in society. Those conversations will not be possible if any Democratic policy to regulate runaway capitalism is met with howls of “socialism” while policies that increasingly concentrate power in a small group of Americans are not challenged for the dangerous ideologies they mimic. 

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Notes:

https://www.newsweek.com/kamala-harris-video-her-laughing-socialism-questions-60-minutes-has-been-viewed-over-1-1542398

https://www.newsweek.com/kamala-harris-60-seconds-socialist-interview-prompts-memes-1542062David Corn @DavidCornDCDamn. Trump is talking about Biden being assassinated weeks into his presidency. What nut is going to interpret this as an encouragement? October 27th 20204,545 Retweets10,484 LikesAndrew Feinberg @AndrewFeinberg”Three weeks in, Joe is shot, let’s go Kamala, are you ready?” October 27th 20201,346 Retweets2,388 Likes

https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/523078-study-warns-five-states-at-high-risk-for-election-related-armed-violence-by

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/21521958/what-is-fascism-signs-donald-trump

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/trump-admin-dismantles-firewall-editorial-independence-u-s-funded-media-n1244885

https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/27/politics/trump-gretchen-whitmer-kidnapping-michigan/index.html

https://www.newstatesman.com/international/places/2020/09/return-american-fascism

Article of the Day: 10/27/20 from sciencemag.org

SÉBASTIEN THIBAULT 

As U.S. election nears, researchers are following the trail of fake news

By Greg MillerOct. 26, 2020 , 1:25 PM

It started with a tweet from a conservative media personality, accompanied by photos, claiming that more than 1000 mail-in ballots had been discovered in a dumpster in Sonoma county in California. Within hours on the morning of 25 September, a popular far-right news website ran the photos with an “exclusive” story suggesting thousands of uncounted ballots had been dumped by the county and workers had tried to cover it up.

In fact, according to Sonoma county officals, the photos showed empty envelopes from the 2018 election that had been gathered for recycling. Ballots for this year’s general election had not yet been mailed. Even so, within a single day, more than 25,000 Twitter users had shared a version of the false ballot-dumping story, including Donald Trump Jr., who has 5.7 million followers.

This election season, understanding how misinformation—and intentionally propagated disinformation—spreads has become a major goal of some social scientists. They are using a variety of approaches, including ethnographic research and quantitative analyses of internet-based social networks, to investigate where election disinformation originates, who spreads it, and how many people see it. Some are helping media firms figure out ways to block it, while others are probing how it might influence voting patterns.

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The stakes are high, researchers say. “This narrative that you’re not going to be able to trust the election results is really problematic,” says Kate Starbird, a crisis informatics researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. “If you can’t trust your elections, then I’m not sure democracy can work.”

In 2016, Russian operatives played a major role in spreading disinformation on social media in an attempt to sow discord and influence the U.S. presidential election. Foreign actors continue to interfere. But researchers say the bulk of disinformation about this year’s election has originated with right-wing domestic groups, attempting to create doubt about the integrity of the election in general, and about mail-in voting in particular. An analysis by the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), a multi-institution collaboration, showed that the false story about the Sonoma ballots was spread largely by U.S.-based websites and individuals with large, densely interconnected social media networks. “They’re just sort of wired to spread these misleading narratives,” says Starbird, who is an EIP collaborator.

Much of the election disinformation EIP has tracked so far originates in conspiratorial corners of the right-wing media ecosystem. “What we’re seeing right now are essentially seeds being planted, dozens of seeds each day, of false stories,” says Emerson Brookings, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which is part of EIP. “They’re all being planted such that they could be cited and reactivated … after the election” by groups attempting to delegitimize the result by claiming the vote was unfair or manipulated.

So far, most of the disinformation EIP has documented focuses on election integrity. But as Election Day draws near, Starbird and Brookings expect to see more attempts to create confusion about voting procedures and attempts to suppress turnout—by raising fears about violence at polling places, for example.

Election deception can take various forms on social media. Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, has been doing digital detective work on Facebook groups targeting Latinos with pro–President Donald Trump messages that appear to be run by non-Latinos who have assumed fake identities. These groups coordinate their campaigns and recruit participants on public message boards or chat apps, allowing researchers to observe their operations; the postings also provide clues the researchers can follow to investigate who the members are and what motivates them.

Purveyors of disinformation have become expert at exploiting the dynamic between social and mainstream media, researchers say. Right-wing conspiracy groups like QAnon—which promotes a false narrative that a cabal of cannibalistic, Satan-worshiping pedophiles are trying to bring down Trump—have learned how to create content and “trade up the chain” of social media users and hyperpartisan websites with increasingly large followings, Donovan says. When the falsehoods start to get traction, mainstream media outlets often feel compelled to debunk them, which can end up further extending the story’s reach. Several stories that had been circulating in QAnon networks got mainstream coverage around the time of the first presidential debate, for example, including unfounded claims that former Vice President Joe Biden might take performance-enhancing drugs or cheat by wearing an earpiece during the debate. “What we’re seeing is that the ways in which news media traditionally operate is now being turned into a vulnerability,” Donovan says.

Not all election disinformation is coming from the bottom up, however. Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and colleagues recently examined how claims of potential fraud associated with mail-in ballots entered public discourse. The researchers analyzed more than 55,000 online news stories, 5 million tweets, and 75,000 posts on public Facebook pages between March and August. They found that most spikes in media coverage and social media activity on the topic were driven by Trump himself—either through his own hyperactive Twitter account, press briefings, or appearances on the Fox TV network. “Donald Trump has perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and reinforce his disinformation campaign,” the researchers write in a preprint posted earlier this month.

EIP is working with social media companies to help them refine and clarify their policies so they can react more quickly to disinformation. Several companies have taken recent steps to flag or remove content, or make it harder to share—steps experts say are welcome, if long overdue. (Some platforms are also trying to nudge users toward better habits, as with Twitter’s recent experiment with prompts that appear when someone tries to share a link to an article they haven’t opened, encouraging them to read it first before sharing.)

The impact of disinformation on the election won’t be easy to measure. Some clues, however, might come from a research collaboration with Facebook aimed at studying the platform’s impact on this year’s election. The company has given 17 academic researchers access to data on the Facebook activity of a large number of users who’ve consented to be involved. (Facebook expects between 200,000 and 400,000 users to volunteer.) Participants agree to answer surveys and, in some cases, go off Facebook for a period of time before the election to help researchers investigate the effects Facebook use on political attitudes and behavior.

Among other things, the Facebook users will be asked at different times to rate their confidence in government, the police, large corporations, and the scientific community. “We’re able to look at things like changes in attitudes and whether people participated in the election and link it to their experiences on Facebook and Instagram,” including exposure to election disinformation, says Joshua Tucker, one of the project’s coordinators and a professor of politics and co-director of New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

Some evidence suggests the impacts might not be as great as feared, says Deen Freelon, a political communication researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There’s a long history of research, for example, showing that political ads only have marginal influence on voters. And more recent studies have suggested misinformation did not have a major effect on the 2016 election. A study published in Science in 2019 found that 80% of exposure to fake news was concentrated within just 1% of Twitter users. A survey study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found no evidence that that people who engaged with Russian troll accounts on Twitter exhibited any substantial changes in political attitudes or behavior.

Freelon, who was a co-author on the PNAS paper and is also a member of the Facebook collaboration, says he’s more worried about “second order effects” of disinformation on our culture, such as the general sense of paranoia and distrust it creates. “When people look at social media and can’t figure out what’s true and what’s not, it degrades the overall informational quality of our political conversations,” he says. “It inserts doubt into a process that really shouldn’t have any.”Posted in: 

doi:10.1126/science.abf4323

Greg Miller

Greg Miller is a science journalist in Portland, Oregon.

Article of the Day: October 26, 2020–Why Kirk Triplett is my favorite golfer

US golfer Kirk Triplett explains why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important to him

kirk triplett golf black lives matter spt intl_00033124

(CNN) — It started with a sticker.

American golfer Kirk Triplett showed up at this year’s Senior Players Championship in Ohio with the Black Lives Matter logo on his bag. A gesture that gained widespread attention — especially when social media swept into action.

“People are speaking out and saying very positive things. Thanks for standing up, thanks for saying something,” Triplett told CNN Sport. 

“We really appreciate your story and getting some of these anecdotal stories from people both White and Black about experiences that they’ve had and the more of those kind of things that we hear and that we share, I think the better we all understand each other. 

“So for me overall, I’ve been kind of surprised and feel pretty good about that the outreach and the things that people have told me.”

Passion for adoption

For Triplett, the matter is deeply personal. 

The three-time PGA Tour winner and wife Cathi are the proud parents of four children. 

“We have twin boys that are 24, they are biological. We have a daughter who is 20 and a son who is 18 and they’re both adopted. Our daughter is Hispanic and our son is half African-American, half Japanese,” the 58 year-old revealed before sharing more on the family’s passion for adoption.

“When you see our family out around town, you know exactly what we’re all about. Raising a family and trying to teach kids the right way to do things and trying to give them opportunity in the same way our parents gave us opportunities. 

“So it’s a great story, adoption. There’s some difficulties at times, but there’s difficulties with your biological kids, too. But it is a great story. Great for the kids. It’s great for the families. And more important, it’s great for the community.”

Triplett describes his 18-year-old son Kobe as a “typical” teenager for his age.

“I think he faces the same challenges any young African-American male faces, just sort of an uncertainty from the world around him,” says Triplett. 

“Looking at him based on what he looks like, if he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, what’s going to happen? 

“Is this situation going to escalate or is he going to have the ability to kind of manage it and control it and let it de-escalate a little bit? 

“But I guess my fear, or my what bothers me, is why should that be his responsibility? Why should he be the one that has to make it slow down and make people react a different way? That shouldn’t be his responsibility. That should be the system’s responsibility.”

The Triplett family is pictured in an old Christmas photo, from left: Kirk with his wife Cathi, son Sam, adopted daughter Lexy, adopted son Kobe, and son Conor.

‘I understand and I agree with you’

This year has seen some of the biggest names in sports take a stance against police brutality and social injustice in the US — including global megastars like Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers. 

It was also a year that saw the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ painted on the courts inside the Orlando bubble and when the season re-started almost all players kneeling during the US national anthem. 

Triplett says that due to his family situation he has just a “very unique, small sliver of understanding about what some of the African-American community is going through.”

As an avid consumer of news events, he says that recent tragedies have hit him hard. 

The American, who’s also now an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour Champions, says it was never his attention to try and change people’s minds or even make a “big statement.” 

However, there is one powerful point he’s at pains to get across.

“I think first and foremost, my message is to the African-American community that here I am in a demographic that you think is not hearing what you’re saying. And I’m hearing it. And I understand and I agree with you,” he says.

“Well, now, where do we go now? Now what do we do? And there are more people like me. Most of them just don’t put stickers on their bags.

PGA Tour ‘expects to generate over $100m’ towards racial and social injustice causes over next 10 years 02:23

More to do

Earlier this year, the PGA Tour said it expected to raise over $100 million towards racial and social injustice causes over the next decade — a move Triplett welcomes. 

“The golf demographic is a great demographic, right? It’s people are educated, people are affluent. People are committed to charitable work. They want to make the world a better place and I think the world of golf can help. “

That being said, he feels there’s still much work to be done. 

“I think nobody’s doing enough yet but we are making some progress. I like what the Tour has done. The Tour has some very good people that are involved in this process,” he adds.

“It’s easy to just sort of earmark some money and hope you make a difference. The Tour is investigating ways to make sure that they do more than that and I’m looking forward very much to being a participant in those programs. 

“We want it to be more than you’ll put a sticker on the bag or throw money at a cause. We don’t want to decide what to do with it. We want help and we want partnership. We want the African-American community to let us know what to do.”

Article of the Day: October 24, 2020–Wall Street Journal is at War…with itself

A Wall Street Journal columnist said Joe Biden was part of Hunter’s business deal. Hours later, its news reporters said the opposite.

Paul Farhi

The News Corp. building in Manhattan is home to Fox News, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.
The News Corp. building in Manhattan is home to Fox News, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

Readers of the Wall Street Journal may have felt a bit of whiplash on Thursday over a news story and an opinion column that presented sharply conflicting accounts of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s alleged role in one of his son’s business ventures.

The Journal column — hailed as a bombshell before the final presidential debate by Biden critics, including President Trump — asserted that Biden was involved in a deal arranged by his son Hunter with a Chinese energy conglomerate in 2017.

Columnist Kimberley Strassel relied on the account of Hunter Biden’s former business partner, Tony Bobulinski, who provided documents that “suggest Hunter was cashing in on the Biden name and that Joe Biden was involved.”

But a few hours after Strassel’s column was published, the Journal’s news side offered a much different take.

“The venture . . . never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals, according to people familiar with the matter,” Journal reporters Andrew Duehren and James Areddy wrote. “Corporate records reviewed by the Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.” The reporters also quoted another partner in the venture, James Gilliar, who said he was “unaware of any involvement at anytime of the former vice president.”

Biden has long denied that he ever had foreign business dealings with his son, and there is no evidence beyond Bobulinski’s assertions. Trump himself has faced questions about foreign business interests while serving as president.

Dueling accounts from the same publication about a major news story are rare. Also unusual: Opinion columnists typically don’t attempt to break news. Large, mainstream news organizations such as the Journal manage their news-reporting and opinion operations separately. The Journal’s news side is under editor in chief Matthew Murray; Paul A. Gigot is editor of its editorial page.

In the Journal’s case, there’s an ongoing civil war between its news staff and its opinion side, as well as a wider war among news organizations controlled by the family of media baron Rupert Murdoch.

What was Trump talking about? How the language of Fox News invaded the final debate.

In July, more than 280 employees at the Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones, protested what they said was the spread of “misinformation” by the paper’s opinion pages. “Opinion’s lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources,” the employees wrote to new publisher Almar Latour. “Many readers already cannot tell the difference between reporting and Opinion. And from those who know of the divide, reporters nonetheless face questions about the Journal’s accuracy and fairness because of errors published in opinion.”

The letter cited a column by Vice President Pence in which he asserted that concerns about a second wave of coronavirus infections were “overblown.”

In response, the editorial board posted “A Note to Readers,” in which it vowed that its writers “won’t wilt under cancel-culture pressure.”

Strassel is a prominent conservative writer who is a member of the Journal’s editorial board and a Fox News contributor. She is the author of a book published last year titled “Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America.” Trump publicly praised her book and has retweeted her comments dozens of times.

Her Thursday column on the Bidens — titled “The Biden ‘Family Legacy’” — was republished by FoxNews.com, but the Journal’s news story on the same topic was not.

Fox News’s opinion hosts have aggressively pushed allegations of corruption involving Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian energy company. New allegations were reported last week by the New York Post, which cited emails from a laptop allegedly owned by Hunter Biden.

Kristen Welker asked the candidates about The Talk. That moment proved the value of newsroom diversity.

Joe Biden’s campaign has denied the allegations, which have been promoted by Trump allies Stephen K. Bannon and Rudolph W. Giuliani and embraced by Trump’s reelection campaign. On Thursday, Trump sought to highlight the allegations by inviting Bobulinski to the presidential debate in Nashville.

The Washington Post has been unable to independently verify the emails or to obtain a copy of the hard drive that Bannon and Giuliani allege was owned by Hunter Biden. News accounts have said the Ukrainian allegations against Biden are part of a disinformation campaign by Russian intelligence agents to boost Trump’s reelection.

The New York Post, Journal and Fox News are all owned by companies in which Murdoch and his family are the controlling shareholders.

Neither Strassel nor Wall Street Journal editor Murray responded to requests for comment.

This journalist was her paper’s only full-time reporter — until they fired her. Her small town wonders: Now what?

Trump breaks agreement with CBS News by releasing his own video of ‘60 Minutes’ interview

Biden’s ABC town hall ratings beat Trump’s three-network NBC event

Article of the Day: October 21, 2020–Another sign of the Great Divide

This interracial couple got engaged in Obama’s America. Then Trump took office.

David and Jessica Figari are navigating racial and political divides in their country — and in their family — that they never anticipated when they fell in love

Sydney TrentOctober 20, 2020

On the already muggy morning of Aug. 28, 2013, David Figari and Jessica Jones held hands in the billowing crowd near the steps of the Georgetown University Law Center. The young lovers had traveled from Florida to meet each other’s relatives and attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

The reminiscences from 1963 march veterans had ended and the trek to the Lincoln Memorial was about to begin when David saw an organizer standing near a microphone at the top of the stairs. He walked up to the man with the mic and introduced himself.

“Hey, I’d like to say something. Can I do it?” David said.

The man gave him the once-over and immediately said “No.”

“No, no, you don’t understand. I’d like to propose to my girlfriend.”

“No,” the man said again.

“I said, ‘No, you don’t understand,’” David said. “‘That’s my girlfriend.’”

He pointed to Jessica. Something clicked — this couple, this moment — and the man gasped.

“Everyone, everyone, really quick!” he announced. “David actually has something to say.”

David signaled Jessica to join him and took the microphone: “Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Today, I have a dream, and that is that one day Jessica will be my wife.”

As Jessica looked on incredulously, David, a White guy in a polo shirt and blue plaid shorts, got down on one knee before his Black girlfriend and asked, “Will you marry me?”

“Yes,” Jessica said quietly, before David slipped a white-gold ring with a princess-cut diamond on her finger. The marchers erupted into cheers and ran over to congratulate the newly engaged couple.The Figaris show off their “I voted” stickers after casting their ballots in the 2016 presidential election. (Family photo) 

They were college-educated 25-year-olds who had voted for the first Black president in the nation’s history and who viewed racism mostly as a relic of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Even as President Barack Obama and civil rights leaders warned the throngs on the Mall that day about the work that remained, a spirit of hope and racial progress pervaded the 50th anniversary of the march.

It was “perfect timing, the perfect event” to propose to Jessica, said David, now a private banker to wealthy clients. The power of love to transcend racial hatred “was exactly the whole point. It‘s why people were marching.”

But that vision of racial harmony soon dissipated like a mirage.

David and Jessica wed in 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected president. They celebrated the birth of their daughter, Liliana, in 2018, a year after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville for the deadly Unite the Right rally. They bought their first home in the suburbs of Tampa last year, not long before Trump tweeted that four minority congresswomen — all citizens, three born in the United States ­­— should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

“It feels like a whole different country now than it did then,” said Jessica, an emergency-room nurse.

As President Trump seeks a second term, the couple, both 32, find themselves navigating racial and political divides they never anticipated when they got engaged. They view Trump as a racist and a threat to families like theirs. But even within their own family and circle of friends, there are people supporting the president who don’t see him that way. One of them is David’s father, Frank Figari.

‘That’s my boy’

One evening this summer, David decided to surprise his father with a visit from Liliana. He buckled the 2-year-old into the back seat of his blue Hyundai Sonata and drove the 15 minutes to the contemporary ranch house where he had grown up. He made a quick call to his dad to make sure he was home. Then he saw it as he approached the house — a rectangular blue sign planted firmly near the curb bordering his father’s wooded front yard. “Trump Pence 2020,” it read. Then in smaller letters: “Make America Great Again.”

David’s stomach dropped. “I felt physically ill,” David said. He couldn’t even bring himself to pull in the driveway to turn around. He drove past his father’s house and looped through a nearby cul-de-sac instead.

Frank Figari, a proud independent, had voted for Obama twice. Then, newly remarried to a Cuban American woman who is a fervent Trump supporter, he voted for Trump in 2016. With the election just weeks away, the former advertising salesman and self-employed home contractor was planning to vote for Trump again.

Though David spars frequently with his father over Trump, Black Lives Matter and racist policing, he decided not to confront Frank about the sign. He had made a New Year’s resolution that he would work hard “to be a better person,” and that meant preserving his relationship with his father, despite their political differences. But keeping his promise felt more difficult now, the sign a tangible obstacle every time his family visited.

Frank had been with David when he had first met Jessica in 2012. Father and son were at a nearby mall when David noticed a blue-and-white bloodmobile in the parking lot. David and his father knocked on the door and Jessica, then a phlebotomist, let them aboard.

As she went through the donor questionnaire with David, Jessica noted that he had the same birthday as her mother. David was captivated by Jessica’s gentle and affable manner. Plus, even in scrubs, he said, “she was just gorgeous.” When he and his father were finished giving blood, David lingered.

“Dad, I feel a little woozy,” he said. “I’m going to sit here and drink a little cranberry, eat a little cracker and meet you in the car.”

Jessica offered him a donor reward — a gift card to a steakhouse.

“Hey, Jessica, can I trade my gift card for something else instead?” David replied.

He asked for her phone number.

She wrote it down, and David rushed out to join his father in the car.

“You asked that Black girl out, didn’t you?” Frank said.

“Yeah,” David replied

His father beamed. “That’s my boy,” he said.The couple take a selfie in 2014 on a visit to the home of David’s father, Frank Figari, to watch a Florida State game. (Family photo) 

When it became clear David and Jessica were serious, Frank talked about buying Disney DVDs for the grandchildren.

This was the man David said had raised him. Frank had grown up in New Rochelle, N.Y., in a sprawling Italian American household. The family hosted elaborate Sunday gatherings, full of two-cheek kisses and raucous aunts, uncles and cousins.

After Frank married David’s mother, Jeannette, he quickly established the ethos that family, Italian-style, was everything. He showed his three sons, David, Austin and Chris — each born less than two years apart — how to change the brake fluid and oil on a car. “Figari Sundays” were spent repairing things: bathrooms, roofs, septic tanks.

Frank, David said, was passionate, funny and a verbal jouster — and more than the other siblings, both agree, his eldest son, David, takes after him. He taught his boys “a deal’s a deal,” Frank said. “If you tell me you’re going to do something or if I tell you I’m going to do something, it’s going to get done.”

And while the only Black person David can recall in his middle-class neighborhood was a girl who lived down the hill, he said he never heard either of his parents, now divorced, utter a bigoted word. A born salesman, Frank could find a way to connect with almost anyone, he said. He once told David that he had dated a Black girl in high school.

Jessica was the first Black woman David had ever dated, just as he was her first White boyfriend. Even so, the couple discovered they had much in common, especially a devotion to family.

‘Tomorrow people’

Jessica was an Army brat, moving with her parents 13 times around the United States as her father, Col. Roger Jones, rose up the ranks. They finally settled in Brandon, Fla., in 2006.

As the perpetual new girl, Jessica learned to downplay differences to make friends. Her parents taught their daughter to behave with dignity and self-control and warned her that she needed to work twice as hard to be noticed half as much, Jessica said.

In high school, she enrolled in Advance Placement classes, but acceptance was elusive. “The White people in the honors classes didn’t want to hang out with me, because I looked like people they didn’t want to hang out with,” Jessica said. “The Black kids didn’t always reach out to me, because I don’t know if they didn’t trust me or didn’t like the way I spoke.” So she mostly kept her head in her books, later graduating as valedictorian of her college nursing class.

Throughout Jessica’s peripatetic childhood, family was the biggest constant. She and her brother Ty, who is four years younger, had each other’s backs. And her parents — quiet and powerful Roger, a former Green Beret, and Marsha, an opinionated nurse — modeled the yin and yang of a happily married couple. Whenever they could, they visited their relatives in Hampton, Va., spending time with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — a Black version of David’s Italian upbringing.

Now, all four of Liliana’s grandparents, plus uncles, aunts and cousins, live just a short drive away from David and Jessica’s multicultural suburban community.

Though interracial marriage was illegal in Florida and much of the South until a 1967 Supreme Court ruling, there are growing numbers of couples like David and Jessica. In 2015, 1 in 6 newlyweds in the United States had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, a fivefold increase since 1967, according to the Pew Research Center. The percentage of Americans who say that more marriages across racial lines is “good for society” rose from 24 percent in 2010 to 39 percent in 2017.

The Figaris still sense this growing acceptance, despite the occasional stares or comments and the rising racial tensions around them.

David choked back tears when he recalled the controversial Cheerios commercial in 2013 that showcased a Black father, White mother and biracial daughter. He now sees a swelling pop-culture presence of cross-racial relationships similar to his and Jessica’s. He likes the term “tomorrow people” to describe children such as Liliana, coined from the TV show “Shameless.”

Jessica, a soft-spoken, deliberate woman wearing delicate pearl earrings and a pink T-shirt, put it more personally: “The longer we’re together, I stop seeing our differences and he’s just my husband. He’s just my David … whose heart I love so much.”

LEFT: White supremacists march on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017. A counterprotester would be killed during the Unite the Right rally the next day. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post) RIGHT: President Trump speaks about Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. He drew criticism three days later when he said there “were very fine people on both sides” of the deadly rally. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

‘I just don’t understand’

When the news of George Floyd’s death surfaced in her Facebook feed in May, Jessica quickly scrolled past it. Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes, appeared to be yet another Black man unjustly killed by a cop.

Jessica, who has treated covid-19 patients throughout the pandemic, was stressed, weary. But every time she checked her social feeds, there it was, the fury building. She needed to see it with her own eyes.

After work, Jessica sat down at the dining-room table to watch the video.

“I watched it start to finish,” she said, “and I just cried.”

“As a medical professional, you can see the respirations becoming labored,” she said. “You can see the point when he changes from a person who is alive to a dead person.”

That night Jessica dreamed that her father was gunned down by a police officer.

A few weeks later, someone organized a Black Lives Matter protest at a major intersection about a mile from their neighborhood. The nearby Wawa closed, wary of violence. Jessica had a shift that evening, but David wanted to attend.

“I don’t think you should go,” Jessica told him.

“Babe, I have to go,” David replied. “I have to do something.”

David dropped Liliana off at his mother-in-law’s that afternoon and headed over to the protest. He promised his wife he would not stay after dark.

The Figaris have never encountered physically threatening racism or slurs as a couple, but they sometimes run up against people who clearly don’t see them as they see themselves.

As they indulged their love of fine dining while dating, restaurant servers too often brought them separate checks. Once they strolled into a hotel lobby in Houston with their luggage, very clearly a couple. When David gave his name at the check-in desk, the woman behind the counter asked him whether he wanted separate rooms. Another time, passing through the airport in Atlanta holding hands with Liliana, they both felt the stares of White people as they passed. At a social gathering with David’s co-workers, an older White woman reached out and gently touched Jessica’s cheek. “I just love your people’s skin,” she said to Jessica, who was too stunned to speak. She and David left early.

David does not think such behavior, mostly by White people of their parents’ generation or older, can be chalked up to pure curiosity. It comes, he believes, from a less innocent place.

“Sometimes you want to just get up and shout, ‘What’s your problem?’” he said, voice rising. “We love each other. Just grow up, even though you’re 40 years older than us.”

The stares eased a bit after Liliana was born, their beautiful, vivacious little girl a bridge to strangers.

But Jessica has begun to feel increasingly unsettled by the country’s racial climate, clenching the steering wheel as a trucker rode too close behind her on her way home from work one night and warily sizing up White strangers to make sure they don’t disapprove of her family. She considered putting a Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard but worried it could make her family a target for property destruction or police indifference.

The other night the Figaris were startled by the doorbell at 3 a.m. Jessica’s thoughts raced as David opened the front door without asking who was there. It was a police officer pointing out that their garage door was open.

Jessica’s emotions lurch when her family goes to visit her father-in-law and she sees the blue Trump sign planted in Frank’s front yard.

“I’ve had thoughts of defiling it or something like that,” Jessica said, though she knows she would not do it. But she feels hurt by her father-in-law’s support of Trump.

“I don’t know how they would reconcile that dissonance between Trump feeling like a threat to people like me, but also loving me,” she said. “That’s something I just don’t understand.”

To David, the sign symbolizes the country’s steep moral decline, and the kindling of White racism that could one day become a blaze. And spurring it all on, he believes, is President Trump.

“The cultist following, the ignorance and lies and hate — it’s astounding that people can’t see it,” David said. “I don’t understand how anyone can listen to the hate and stupidity and just not care.”

‘A deal’s-a-deal guy’

And yet Frank Figari does listen, and he believes in Trump. On visits to Frank’s home, David and Jessica talk about Liliana, food and football — anything but politics. “I feel like it may hurt our relationship,” Jessica said, “and I don’t want to get my feelings hurt.”

As a small-businessman, Frank said, he likes what Trump has done for the economy, even as he acknowledges that Obama got the ball rolling. He’s never owned a gun, but he appreciates the way Trump has increased funding for the military, because his son Chris is an Army ranger instructor.

Frank said he loathes white supremacists — “sharks in the water,” just like antifa, he said. But he doesn’t believe in the concept of White privilege. “I worked my ass off every day, and my kids have always been raised that way,” he said. Even so, he knows not everyone has the same opportunities.

He said racist policing is the result of “a few bad apples” and dismissed demands to defund the police. He sees racism as something that happens “on both sides.”

And he doesn’t get why people such as his son think Trump is a racist. While he doesn’t approve of the president’s charged rhetoric, he said, “it doesn’t matter to me what he says as long as what he does is for the betterment of the people.” And didn’t Trump improve the economy for everyone, including Blacks?

Above all, he believes the president is a man of his word — “a deal’s-a-deal guy,” just like him. “All I’ve ever ever wanted from my president is that whatever he said he was going to do. Just do it. … Get it done.”

The Trump sign in his yard, he said, symbolizes his American freedom to vote as he chooses. His support of the president has nothing to do with Jessica or her family.

His daughter-in-law is beautiful, kind “and very, very sharp” — in a word, “awesome,” Frank said. “David got very lucky in that respect. She has made him a better man.”

And Jessica’s family: “Exceptional people. As a family unit, I don’t think you can find better. They raised their children beautifully.” The Joneses and the Figaris have gathered as one sprawling extended family for Super Bowl watching and brunches out, the grandparents doting on Liliana.

“I really do pray that my granddaughter doesn’t experience racism,” Frank said.

TOP: The Figaris at home this month. BOTTOM LEFT: Jessica said of her daughter, “I would hope that she lives in a world of love and acceptance in her future.” BOTTOM RIGHT: David said he wants Liliana “to know that she’s loved and that she’s safe.” (Photos by Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)

‘A world of love’

Just as David had a dream of marrying Jessica, the couple have a dream for Liliana’s life, too. As the little girl shifted between them babbling at the dining-room table on a recent afternoon, they took turns describing it out loud.

Jessica: “I think what I want for Liliana is for her to live in a world full of friends, full of love — not have to worry about who doesn’t like me or who doesn’t want to be friends based on how she looks. I would hope that she lives in a world of love and acceptance in her future.

“I still want her to be twice as good as everyone else, but just for the sake of being twice as good.”

David: “I want her to be brought up with the same kind of family values and to know that she’s loved and that she’s safe. … I don’t want to have to have a talk with her: ‘If the police come. Make sure you do this.’ If we didn’t have to have that talk, that’s a world that I would want for her.”

When he and Jessica cast their ballots in the presidential election, they will be voting to create that kind of life for Liliana — and that kind of country for themselves.

“Otherwise,” David asked, “what is the point of going to a march?”

About this story

Story editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Amber Ferguson. Copy editing by J.J. Evans. Designed by Alla Dreyvitser. 

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Article of the Day: October 18, 2020, we all pay for what some of us do

How the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may have spread coronavirus across the Upper Midwest

Within weeks of the gathering that drew nearly half a million bikers, the Dakotas, along with Wyoming, Minnesota and Montana, were leading the nation in new coronavirus infections per capita.

Lena H. Sun

Angie Balcom and Kenny Cervantes outside their home in Riverdale, Neb., last month. Cervantes feels certain he got the coronavirus from his trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August. (Misty Prochaska for The Washington Post)
Angie Balcom and Kenny Cervantes outside their home in Riverdale, Neb., last month. Cervantes feels certain he got the coronavirus from his trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August. (Misty Prochaska for The Washington Post)

It had been a long ride back from Sturgis, S.D., so when he first felt an ache at the back of his throat, Kenny Cervantes figured he was just tired. He’d traveled the 400-some miles on his Harley, rumbling through wide-open farm and prairie land on his way home to Riverdale, Neb., where his girlfriend was waiting.

A lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, the 50-year-old construction worker and father of five had been determined to go to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a holy grail for bikers. Even when his girlfriend, Angie Balcom, decided to stay back because she was worried about being around so many people during a pandemic, Cervantes was adamant about going.

“I don’t think there was nothing that was going to stop me,” he said.

Back home, Cervantes took Tylenol for his throat and went to bed early. But he woke up the next morning coughing so hard he struggled to catch his breath. Over the next few days, the pain in his chest made him fear that his heart might stop, and a test later confirmed he had the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19. He was admitted to the hospital 11 days later, on Aug. 27. Soon, his girlfriend and his sister were sick, and Cervantes was going over everything he did and every place he visited in Sturgis, wondering where the virus had found him.

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Bikers from around the country arrived in Sturgis, S.D., on Aug. 7, at the start of the 10-day motorcycle event. (Quick Throttle Magazine via Storyful)

Within weeks of the gathering, the Dakotas, along with Wyoming, Minnesota and Montana, were leading the nation in new coronavirus infections per capita. The surge was especially pronounced in North and South Dakota, where cases and hospitalization rates continued their juggernaut rise into October. Experts say they will never be able to determine how many of those cases originated at the 10-day rally, given the failure of state and local health officials to identify and monitor attendees returning home, or to trace chains of transmission after people got sick. Some, however, believe the nearly 500,000-person gathering played a role in the outbreak now consuming the Upper Midwest.

More than 330 coronavirus cases and one death were directly linked to the rally as of mid-September, according to a Washington Post survey of health departments in 23 states that provided information. But experts say that tally represents just the tip of the iceberg, since contact tracing often doesn’t capture the source of an infection, and asymptomatic spread goes unnoticed.

In many ways, Sturgis is an object lesson in the patchwork U.S. response to a virus that has proved remarkably adept at exploiting such gaps to become resurgent. While some states and localities banned even relatively small groups of people, others, like South Dakota, imposed no restrictions — in this case allowing the largest gathering of people in the United States and perhaps anywhere in the world amid the pandemic and creating huge vulnerabilities as tens of thousands of attendees traveled back home to every state in the nation.

Many went unmasked to an event public health officials pleaded with them to skip, putting themselves and others at risk, because they were skeptical about the risks, or felt the entreaties infringed on their personal liberties. Rallygoers jammed bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors and concert venues; South Dakota officials later identified four such businesses as sites of potential exposure after learning that infected people had visited them.

Despite the concerns expressed by health experts ahead of the event, efforts to urge returnees to self-quarantine lacked enforcement clout and were largely unsuccessful, and the work by state and local officials to identify chains of transmission and stop them was inconsistent and uncoordinated.

Those efforts became further complicated when some suspected of having the virus refused to be tested, said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious-disease epidemiology at the Minnesota Department of Health.

Such challenges made it all but impossible to trace the infections attendees may have spread to others after they got home. Several infections tied to a wedding in Minnesota, for instance, “linked back to someone who had gone to Sturgis,” Ehresmann said. Those were not tallied with the Sturgis outbreak because “the web just gets too complicated,” she said.

“When it comes to infectious diseases, it’s often the case that the weakest link in the chain is a risk to everybody,” said Josh Michaud, an epidemiologist and associate director for global health policy for the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. “Holding a half-million-person rally in the midst of a pandemic is emblematic of a nation as a whole that maybe isn’t taking [the novel coronavirus] as seriously as we should.”

The Aug. 7-16 gathering has drawn intense interest from scientists and health officials, and will likely be studied for years to come because of its singularity. It’s not just that Sturgis went on after the pandemic sidelined most everything else. It also drew people from across the country, all of them converging on one region, packing the small city’s Main Street and the bars and restaurants along it. And in contrast with participants in the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, many Sturgis attendees spent time clustered indoors at bars, restaurants and tattoo parlors, where experts say the virus is most likely to spread, especially among those without masks.

Attendees came from every state, with just under half hailing from the Great Plains and substantial numbers journeying from as far as California, Illinois and Arizona, according to an analysis by the Center for New Data, a nonprofit group that uses cellphone location data to tackle public issues. The analysis, shared with The Washington Post, shows just how intertwined the South Dakota rally was with the rest of the country — and how far the decisions of individual attendees could have ricocheted.

Cervantes feels certain he got the virus from his Sturgis trip, and shared that with the contact tracer from the Two Rivers Public Health Department who phoned him after his case was recorded. Nebraska borders South Dakota, and health officials there expected they might see rally-related infections.

Yet his illness was not classified as a Sturgis case, suggesting that even under the best of circumstances, infections might go uncounted. With so much still unknown, it worries him to think people might look at the rally and conclude that massive events aren’t concerning after all — that the risk is worth it.

That was how he saw it before he got sick. He recalls having a fleeting thought as he guided his motorcycle through the turns of the famed Needles Highway two months ago, taking in the sweeping views and rock formations close enough to touch: “If I catch the virus and die, I will be a happy man. I have lived.”

He hadn’t imagined that within a matter of days, he would feel that death was hovering right at his door.

‘No right decision’

Riders gather at the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August. Despite support for canceling this year's event, local officials knew they faced an uphill battle and decided to go ahead with it. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
Riders gather at the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August. Despite support for canceling this year’s event, local officials knew they faced an uphill battle and decided to go ahead with it. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

As the coronavirus scuttled gatherings big and small, from the 2020 Olympicsto birthday parties, weddings and funerals, Sturgis officials mulled postponing this year’s rally. The event is synonymous with the 7,000-person city nestled amid state and national park land, where the Harley-Davidson Rally Point Plaza is a defining feature downtown.

But this year, a survey found that 60 percent of residents wanted the rally postponed. At council meetings, people lined up to argue. A nurse warned there wouldn’t be enough hospital beds if the event went forward, while a business owner said she would lose her building if it didn’t. Calling off this year’s rally, its 80th anniversary, would mean a loss of around $2 million for the city, authorities said. It had only been done during World War II.

“There absolutely was no right decision,” said city council member Terry Keszler.

Officials also knew that canceling would have been an uphill battle: South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, a Republican, was one of the few state leaders who never restricted mass gatherings, managing the pandemic by emphasizing personal responsibility over government mandates. Because the rally encompasses hundreds of miles beyond city limits, the council’s authority was limited.

Another concern was that crowds would come regardless of their decision, and, Keszler said, “we had to prepare for it, or it would have been such a mess it’s not even funny.”

The council ultimately voted to allow the event with the understanding that “the covid thing wasn’t going to stop people,” as Keszler put it.

That supposition was likely correct: There is evidence that those who ventured to Sturgis were engaging in riskier behavior than most Americans in response to the pandemic, by leaving home more often and covering more ground, according to the Center for New Data analysis.

Kenny Cervantes described his ride to Sturgis as “exhilarating.” He was one of an estimated 16,700 people from Nebraska, which had the seventh-highest number of rallygoers.  (Family photo)
Kenny Cervantes described his ride to Sturgis as “exhilarating.” He was one of an estimated 16,700 people from Nebraska, which had the seventh-highest number of rallygoers. (Family photo) (N/A/Family Photo)

Using data from X-Mode, a company that collects location information from smartphone users who grant permission to various apps, the Covid Alliance, a project of the Center for New Data, found 11,000 probable Sturgis rallygoers. The researchers analyzed where those individuals came from and their mobility during the pandemic and extrapolated information about others from them. On average, the analysis found, attendees spent less time at home than others before and after the event, and traveled twice the daily distance of non-rally goers, underscoring concerns about the potential for virus transmission.

That was true even in states where officials asked Sturgis attendees to quarantine after returning home, including Minnesota, New York and New Jersey.

“You can see it in the data,” said Steven Davenport, co-executive director of the Center for New Data. “And from a policy perspective, it’s not about blaming people. It’s about implementing policies that work and using data to learn from them.”

The data doesn’t show whether the rally attendees took other precautions, such as social distancing or wearing masks. It also doesn’t offer any context for their movement — it could be they had jobs that required leaving home or driving greater distances.

In interviews with The Post, several rally attendees said they didn’t deny the threat of the coronavirus but also didn’t believe they needed to stay home indefinitely. Some noted that they take risks each time they get on their bikes. A number said they wore masks or made other minor concessions but were determined to go on with their lives.

Kathy Colville and Darrell Hackler said they decided two weeks before the rally that this was the year they would cross it off their bucket list. The Round Hill, Va., couple reasoned they could lower their risk by wearing masks and sleeping in their RV.

“I believe that we’re going to be living with covid for a year, maybe more,” said Colville, 61. “And I personally would be stir-crazy nuts and divorced if I tried to quarantine in my house for that amount of time.”

Balcom, Cervantes’s girlfriend, made a different calculation. She had been excited to go to Sturgis with Cervantes, her brother and her dad. But her work as an occupational therapy assistant made the virus’s threat real to her, and she worried about the prospect of infecting clients. In the end, she and her family members canceled, leaving Cervantes to travel with friends.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to tell you you can’t go, because you wouldn’t do that to me,’” Balcom recalled telling him. “‘But I think it’s asinine. I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ And he was like, ‘I’m going to go.’”

‘A risk that they accepted’

Riders pass a discarded mask on Main Street in Sturgis during the rally. Masks were encouraged but not required. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)
Riders pass a discarded mask on Main Street in Sturgis during the rally. Masks were encouraged but not required. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

The rally unfolded in August as it always had. Bikers revved their engines on Main Street and filled highways leading to sites like Custer State Park and Devils Tower. Bands played to shoulder-to-shoulder audiences, and bikini-wearing bartenders sold beer by the bucket. Hardly anyone wore a mask.

Among T-shirts hawked by vendors were ones that made mention of the virus keeping many Americans at home: “Screw covid-19, I went to Sturgis.”

In the run-up to the rally, officials estimated that 250,000 people would come. The actual number, according to the South Dakota Transportation Department, was over 460,000 — down just 7 percent from 2019.

They came in the greatest numbers from South Dakota, source of an estimated 93,000 attendees, or a fifth of the total, according to calculations by the Center for New Data. Minnesota ranked second, with an estimated 31,000 people, followed by Colorado with 29,000. Many traveled hundreds of miles: 21,000 rallygoers are believed to have come from Texas, and 20,800 from California.

Cervantes was one of an estimated 16,700 from Nebraska, which had the seventh-highest number of rallygoers. After a six-hour ride, he reached Sturgis before sunset on Thursday, almost a week into the rally.

“It was just exhilarating,” he said. “And then pulling down into Sturgis that Thursday night just blew me away.”

From the beginning, Cervantes recalled being struck by the lack of masks. On his ride from Nebraska, Balcom had chided him on a call after he acknowledged he hadn’t worn one at a gas station. He mostly kept one on after that — “Angie really drilled it into my head,” he said — and wondered whether everyone else would get sick.

Andrew Crerar of Ashburn, Va., said he wore a bandanna — “uniform 101 for people riding motorcycles” — but “you go into the grocery store and you could tell who was local and who wasn’t by who was wearing masks.”

Still, there were reminders of the pandemic: Hand sanitizing stations stood downtown, and Cervantes carved “2020: The Year of the Virus” into a table at his campground. The lead singer of Smash Mouth, a headliner in a year when Willie Nelson and ZZ Top canceled, shouted “F— that covid s—!”

“No one that I spoke to there wasn’t aware of coronavirus, and wasn’t aware that there was a risk of them being there,” Crerar said. “It was just a risk that they accepted.”

Cervantes spent much of his time on scenic rides, feeling moved when he went through a tunnel and Mount Rushmore came into view. He and his friends stopped at several stores and, on the final night of the rally, took a bus downtown to “party it up a little bit because it was our last night there.”

The next day, bikers began disappearing as quickly as they had rolled in. Sturgis leaders began offering free coronavirus testing to residents — and waiting.

“I can say that there’s probably been a collective holding of breath,” Keszler, the city council member, said in early September. “This was my big concern, honestly, was what’s going to happen after.”

Virus’s uncertain path

Public health nurses Crys Kuntz, left, and Sara Nelson confer inside the Bismarck Event Center in North Dakota, where vehicles were lined up early last month for weekly drive-through coronavirus testing. (Tom Stromme/Bismarck Tribune/AP)
Public health nurses Crys Kuntz, left, and Sara Nelson confer inside the Bismarck Event Center in North Dakota, where vehicles were lined up early last month for weekly drive-through coronavirus testing. (Tom Stromme/Bismarck Tribune/AP)

What happened afterward was, in certain respects, very clear.

South Dakota, which had the most attendees, saw coronavirus cases surge within weeks of the rally’s Aug. 16 close, with the seven-day rolling average going from 84 on Aug. 6 to 214 on Aug. 27. The numbers remained elevated into October: The first day of the month, the seven-day rolling average was 434. The state is second in the nation in cases per capita behind North Dakota, with numbers high enough for the Harvard Global Health Institute to recommend stay-at-home orders.

But precisely how that outbreak unfolded remains shrouded in uncertainty.

Because symptoms of the coronavirus can take days to surface, rally attendees were unlikely to know they had been infected until returning home. Without a nationally coordinated contact-tracing strategy, the job of identifying chains of transmission was left to a patchwork of local and state health departments with varying approaches, leadership and staffing. Typically, such efforts focus on determining a person’s contacts after they became infectious — and stopping those people from spreading the virus — rather than on pinpointing the source of an infection.

Genomic sequencing, which other countries have harnessed to determine the path of an outbreak, has been underused in the United States. And because it requires culturing and sequencing active virus, the rally is too far in the past for it to be of service now, said Michaud, the Kaiser Family Foundation epidemiologist.

So even as the Dakotas and the Upper Midwest began seeing infections climb, it is impossible to say precisely how many of those cases originated at the rally — or how many of those might have ignited additional clusters elsewhere.

“This motorcycle rally was and is such a big thing that people come from miles and miles away and they come from right next door. And it’s not reported anywhere who they are, where they live,” said Benjamin Aaker, president of the South Dakota State Medical Association.

“Contact tracing on something like that is even harder than it is during normal circumstances,” he added.

But other countries offer examples of more robust and coordinated contact-tracing efforts, Michaud said. Japan uses what’s called retrospective contact tracing — working backward to determine where a person was infected and who else may have gotten the virus there, he said. It’s particularly effective in dealing with the coronavirus, which is often transmitted by a small number of people infecting many others in clusters.

It was “fairly obvious” that a gathering the size of the motorcycle rally represented a risk, Michaud said — and more rigorous contact tracing could have revealed the actual impact. It might also have prevented some of the secondary and tertiary spread.

Hospitals have seen the effects. David Basel, vice president of clinical quality at Avera Medical Group, which has locations on the east side of the state, said on Sept. 30 that facilities had been “busy, and we’re feeling it.” Covid-19 cases make up 10 percent of patients, he said.

“The thing that quite honestly scares us most is personnel,” he said. “If we started to lose personnel to them coming down with covid, that would be probably the biggest risk to us.”

Three of the four South Dakota counties estimated to have the highest share of Sturgis attendees also saw cases spike post-rally. The increase was most pronounced in Pennington County, which is just outside Sturgis. Its seven-day rolling average of new cases leaped from eight on Aug. 6 to 34 on Aug. 27.

State health officials, who linked 125 cases to Sturgis, have not tied the surge to the rally, however. They note it overlapped with school openings and end-of-summer restlessness.

“Anytime you’re bringing individuals together, you’re going to have times where you’re having covid-19 transmission,” state epidemiologist Joshua Clayton said last month. “That’s a risk whether you’re in South Dakota, or in other states.”

Noem, the governor, attributed the rise in cases to increases in testing, echoing President Trump’s explanation of growing U.S. infections. “That’s normal, that’s natural, that’s expected,” she told the Associated Press. She did not explain how extra testing could have accounted for the rise in hospitalizations in the state, which hit record highs in October.

And the increases in coronavirus infections spread beyond South Dakota, post-rally. In Crook County, Wyoming, Corinne Hoard started feeling sick a week afterward but isn’t sure whether she was infected there — or whether health officials counted her case as Sturgis-related.

Hoard, who said motorcycle riding is “kind of in my blood,” was mostly avoiding crowds but kept her annual tradition of going to Sturgis and attended a concert there, viewing it as safe because she sat outdoors. She started feeling sick a week afterward and went to the hospital after waking up one morning feeling like “death had crawled in the bed with me.”

“I was crying because I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I hope this isn’t corona,’” she said. “And it ended up being corona.”

‘It ain’t worth it’

Angie Balcolm was upset when she found out Kenny Cervantes’s case wasn’t included in covid-19 tallies linked to Sturgis. (Misty Prochaska for The Washington Post)
Angie Balcolm was upset when she found out Kenny Cervantes’s case wasn’t included in covid-19 tallies linked to Sturgis. (Misty Prochaska for The Washington Post)

The day Cervantes sat up from the couch and asked Balcom to take him to the emergency room, doctors put him on oxygen. He had been worried about the tightness in his chest, but he hadn’t grasped how bad it was. Only when he was being hooked up to the oxygen machine did he realize he hadn’t said goodbye to his children.

“I was just laying there thinking, ‘This could be it. This could be it,’” Cervantes said. “And, am I going to get another chance?”

He spent eight days in the hospital before being discharged Sept. 4. He was still sick when he left, but the doctors said he could recuperate at home. Walking across the hospital parking lot, though, he was so winded he had to take a moment to sit down.

Balcom, whose case was mild, cried in the car, relieved he was coming home. She never said “I told you so,” or got angry with him. She was upset, though, when she found out Cervantes’s case wasn’t included in covid-19 tallies linked to Sturgis.

“If we had an accurate representation of what’s going on, then people might say, ‘Maybe it’s not a good idea to go to the concert or go to the gathering,'” she said. “Everyone is just muddling through this because no one knows what the hell is going on.”

Cervantes now looks at things differently. Watching football, he worried how many of the thousands of fans admitted to a recent Kansas City Chiefs game might become infected, even as he noticed they sat apart. He once put on a mask to humor Balcom; now he says he has to resist the urge to yell at strangers to wear them.

After weeks of missed work, his stint in the hospital and a return visit to the ER over a blood clot concern, he’s come to deeply regret his decision.

“I was naive,” he said. “I was dumb, you know? I shouldn’t have went. I did; I can’t change that, so I just got to move forward. But sitting here just the past few days, that’s all I keep thinking about. I’m like, Jesus, look at the hell I’m going through, the hell I put everybody through. It ain’t worth it. It wasn’t. It really wasn’t.”

Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.

Article of the Day: October 16, 2020 Originalism Considered

As a Bible student and priest in the Episcopal Church I have had many discussions about how to interpret a text. Therefore, discussions about how to interpret the text of the Constitution have a natural interest for me.

This article appears in today’s Washington Post. The author is Jack Rakove. Here is a description of Rakove from Wikipedia:

Rakove is the W.R. Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1980. He also taught at Colgate University from 1975 to 1980. He has been a visiting professor at the NYU School of Law.

Rakove won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for History and the 1998 Cox Book Prize for Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996) which questioned whether originalism is a comprehensive and exhaustive means of interpreting the Constitution. Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.

The framers of the Constitution didn’t worry about ‘originalism’

History shows that the text is far more complex than the legal doctrine might indicate.

Jack Rakove

Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett introduces her family members during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Barrett says she’s an originalist.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett introduces her family members during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Barrett says she’s an originalist. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a self-avowed originalist and textualist. Like most conservative jurists, she praises these modes of constitutional interpretation as effective constraints on judicial discretion. Adherents of these methods hold that they will interpret the Constitution as its original adopters understood it. They will not allow judges to make up new rights, even in response to their personal moral commitments. The text governs all, and those who interpret it must be faithful to the usage of past decades, not contemporary concerns.

So far so good, an impartial observer might say. But debates about originalism and how to perform it have been roiling the legal academy for several decades. Scores and scores of scholarly articles on the subject pour in annually from university law reviews; another baker’s dozen books also address it. And there is no simple way to say how we know what the phrases of the Constitution originally meant.

The framers never worried about its future judicial interpretation, nor would they have thought of themselves as “originalists.” They were, rather, the heirs to rich constitutional debates that began with the imperial quarrel with Britain in the mid-1760s and continued with the writing of new state constitutions in the mid-1770s and the “imbecility,” as the Federalist papers put it, of the national government under the Articles of Confederation. They didn’t consider how their decisions would hold up in court.

At first glance, questions of original intent seem like ideal problems for historians to solve. How can we determine what the Constitution truly meant except by examining why its clauses were proposed and how they were supported or criticized? The Constitution and its amendments were products of political debates; reconstructing those debates is how one would decipher its “original meaning.”

But the main advocates for originalist theory are lawyers, not historians, and they act under different assumptions. Where historians would be content to describe a set of debates reflecting an array of perspectives, legal originalists want to “fix” the meaning of constitutional terms — to come up with the one best answer to the puzzles that jurists have to solve. They assume the words the framers used had settled meanings and that a conscientious reader — an informed public official, a learned jurist or just a responsible citizen — can understand those meanings without knowing anything about the debates that produced the text.

Five myths about the Constitution

One problem with this idea is that the founding era was a period of intense conceptual change. Some of the key words and terms in our constitutional vocabulary were subject to pounding controversy and reconsideration. One has to engage these debates to understand how Americans were thinking about these issues at the time. For today’s originalists, that complexity is part of the problem. The records of history are often messy, not neat; speakers argue past each other or engage in rhetorical excess; their fears are dated, their expectations of worst consequences exaggerated.

Rather than accept these aspects of the historical record, today’s originalists prefer to regard the Constitution as a purely legal text, subject to ordinary rules of construction. Yet the linguistic sources they rely on will not provide the answers they seek. There is no adequate dictionary definition of “the executive power” that Article II vests in the president. Understanding what the “establishment of religion” invoked in the First Amendment meant to its framers requires examining the complex ways in which the states had supported the existing denominations of a very Protestant America. As Thomas Jefferson explained in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” the very word “constitution” had multiple meanings that were still evolving precisely because Americans were trying to figure out how to make written constitutions — their greatest innovation — the supreme law of the land.

The distinctive American practice of judicial review was one result of that innovation. But even after this practice was established, leading officials and jurists had to figure out how constitutions were to be interpreted — it was not evident to them that it should be about ascertaining what the original intent was. Constitutional law itself was also something that the founding generation had to create. The first debates on interpreting the Constitution took place not in the courts but in Congress, over questions like the removal power of the president, whether Congress had the authority to issue charters of incorporation, whether the president could unilaterally declare American neutrality in French revolutionary wars and whether the House of Representatives had a right to review presidential papers related to the negotiation of the Jay Treaty.

That last debate took place in the early spring of 1796, and it produced the first coherent statement of originalism. In a speech on April 6, James Madison argued that even though the treaty was part of the law of the land, the House still had a right to review papers to decide whether to fund its implementation. To sustain this tenuous claim, Madison used records of the ratification of the Constitution — though he relied on evidence from North Carolina, which joined the Union only after the Constitution had been ratified. In effect, Madison used a form of originalism to challenge a plain-textualist reading of the Constitution, which makes “treaties made . . . under the authority of the United States” part of the supremacy clause, and therefore something the House was already obliged to enforce.

Barrett favors religious expression over other speech. The Constitution doesn’t.

This primitive form of originalism was clearly different from the “public meaning” version of the theory’s current adherents. In a famous passage from Federalist 37, Madison doubted the capacity of language to produce the “perspicuity” — the linguistic precision — needed for such interpretation. Drawing on John Locke, he observed that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.”

That is why the context historians provide should remain an essential part of any inquiry into the original meaning of the Constitution. It is also why the best-known example of “public meaning” originalism, Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in the major Second Amendment case D.C. v. Heller, is such a travesty of historical unreason. Here, the court narrowly held that an individual right of self-defense within one’s domicile was constitutionally protected. Far from being a decision logically derived from the original intentions behind the Second Amendment, Scalia’s opinion in Heller is, ironically, a great tribute to the idea of a “living Constitution,” one whose meaning evolves over time — in this case, recognizing how attached Americans had become to the use of firearms. (I was the main author of the “historians’ brief” in Heller, as well as three other amicus curiae briefs submitted to the Supreme Court on questions of original intent.)

In the debates surrounding the Second Amendment, a handful of references did allude to an individual right to arms. But that was manifestly not the issue in dispute. The debate was about the militia, a state-governed institution whose future status was problematic because the Constitution gave Congress broad authority to oversee its “organizing, arming, and disciplining.” No one then would have read the amendment to constrain the “internal police” powers of the states, meaning their broad authority to secure public health and safety.

Today, everyone observing Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings expects her to be a reliable conservative justice, and one who is likely to enlarge the body of Second Amendment rights (in the plural) that conservatives favor. But what does it mean that she cites “originalism” as the source of her views? Only by examining the history does it become clear why these interpretive differences over originalism matter so much — and why the practice does not provide the constraints on judicial rulings that its advocates claim.

Congress isn’t just a co-equal branch. We’re first among equals.

Hamilton pushed for impeachment powers. Trump is what he had in mind.

Trump has made my political science students skeptical — of the Constitution