F our years after Donald Trump emerged as the most nakedly authoritarian candidate in American history, it’s tempting to view the threat he once seemed to pose as overblown. Upon his election, some panicked that he would be a proto-dictator, trampling every democratic institution in the fascist manner imported from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. Others saw merely a malign, illiberal incompetent who would probably amount to nothing too threatening — or believed that America’s democratic institutions and strong Constitution would surely survive Trump’s strongman posturing, however menacing it appeared in the abstract. Many contended that his manifest criminality meant he would be dispatched in short order, with impeachment simply a matter of time. It was all, unavoidably, unknown and unknowable — and so we cast around for historical analogies to guide us. Was this the 1930s, along the lines of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here? Or the 19th century in Latin America, with Trump an old-school caudillo? Was he another demagogue like George Wallace or Huey Long — but in the White House? Well, we now have a solid record of what Trump has said and done. And it fits few modern templates exactly. He is no Pinochet nor Hitler, no Nixon nor Clinton. His emergence as a cultish strongman in a constitutional democracy who believes he has Article 2 sanction to do “whatever I want” — as he boasted, just casually, last month — seems to have few precedents. But zoom out a little more and one obvious and arguably apposite parallel exists: the Roman Republic, whose fate the Founding Fathers were extremely conscious of when they designed the U.S. Constitution. That tremendously successful republic began, like ours, by throwing off monarchy, and went on to last for the better part of 500 years. It practiced slavery as an integral and fast-growing part of its economy. It became embroiled in bitter and bloody civil wars, even as its territory kept expanding and its population took off. It won its own hot-and-cold war with its original nemesis, Carthage, bringing it into unexpected dominance over the entire Mediterranean as well as the whole Italian peninsula and Spain. And the unprecedented wealth it acquired by essentially looting or taxing every city and territory it won and occupied soon created not just the first superpower but a superwealthy micro-elite — a one percent of its day — that used its money to control the political process and, over time, more to advance its own interests than the public good. As the republic grew and grew in size and population and wealth, these elites generated intense and increasing resentment and hatred from the lower orders, and two deeply hostile factions eventually emerged, largely on class lines, to be exploited by canny and charismatic opportunists. Well, you get the point.
A tyrant’s path to power is not a straight line, it’s dynamic. Each concession is instantly banked, past vices are turned into virtues, and then the ante is upped once again. The threat rises exponentially with time. If we can’t see this in front of our own eyes, and impeach this man now, even if he will not be convicted, we are flirting with the very stability of our political system. It is not impregnable. Why is Putin the only person who seems to grasp this?
like the truth. I’m actually a very honest guy,” President Trump told a
slightly incredulous George Stephanopoulos this week. Like almost
everything Trump says, it was, of course, a lie. But it was a
particularly Trumpish kind of lie. It was so staggeringly,
self-evidently untrue, and so confidently, breezily said, it was less a
statement of nonfact than an expression of pure power.
Trump, lying is central to his disturbed psyche, and to his success.
The brazenness of it unbalances and stupefies sane and adjusted people,
thereby constantly giving him an edge and a little breathing space while
we try to absorb it, during which he proceeds to the next lie. And on
it goes. It’s like swimming in choppy water. Just when you get to the
surface to breathe, another wave crashes into you.
This particular lie was in the context of a report from the New York Times this week, independently confirmed by ABC News, that Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio had found Trump lagging Joe Biden in most of the states he needed to win — even in Texas. The Times
reported that Trump had instructed his staff to lie about this polling.
When asked about it by Stephanopoulos, Trump simply followed his own
advice. “No, my polls show that I’m winning everywhere,” he said
blithely. And when you hear him, it sounds as if he is telling the truth. He’s gooood.
In Michael Wolff’s new book, Siege,
Steve Bannon recounts on the record several bald-faced lies Trump told
him to his face. About Trump’s trip to Moscow, where the alleged and
likely chimeric pee tape was supposedly made, Trump insisted repeatedly
that he had spent only a day there, and hadn’t stayed overnight, so
couldn’t have employed any prostitutes at all. “This story was told to
me a dozen times, maybe more, and the details never changed,” Bannon
noted, even as evidence emerged that Trump had indeed spent two days and two nights there.
the affair with Stormy Daniels: “Never happened,” he told Bannon. And
when Trump insisted on these things, he was in the moment believable.
This preternatural capacity to lie convincingly even when the truth is
obvious is a very rare skill. Which is why it works, of course. You
simply assume that a grown man with real responsibility wouldn’t behave
that way. And you would be wrong. Bannon, Wolff writes, came to
understand that the lies were “compulsive, persistent and without even a
minimal grounding in reality.” This is not to deceive the public. This
is simply the way Trump behaves — in private and public. It’s why I have
long believed he is mentally unwell.
is not true that all presidents lie in this fashion. Take that famous
liar, Bill Clinton. Bubba’s lies were infamous — but he was always
calibrating them to avoid telling an outright whopper. A ridiculous
parsing of the definition of “sexual relations” or “is” is different
than outright denying reality and daring people to correct you. Clinton
accepted reality and tried, in lawyerly fashion, to spin his way out of
In retrospect, the presidency of George W. Bush was a Trump harbinger of sorts. Recall this famous passage from Ron Suskind, reporting on the Bush White House for the Times:
aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based
community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions
emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and
murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut
me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he
continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create reality. And
while you are studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll
act again creating other new realities, which you can study too, and
that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all
of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
joke, in the end, of course, was on them. Reality destroyed them, as it
often does. In that time period, however, it also destroyed hundreds of
thousands of innocent lives.
Trump’s only rival in this department — denying what everyone can see
is true — was Sarah Palin, the lipsticked John the Baptist of the Trump
cult. During the 2008 campaign, gobsmacked that this lunatic could be in
line for the presidency, I began to keep track of everything she said
out loud that was provably, empirically untrue. In the two months she
was running to be vice-president, I catalogued 34 demonstrably untrue statements,
which she refused to correct. She compiled nowhere near Trump’s volume
of lies — it’s close to inhuman to lie the way he does — but her
capacity to move swiftly on from them, along with the press’s supine
failure to keep up, was very Trumpy. The short attention span of digital
media has made this worse. And she got away with it. The base didn’t
care; the media couldn’t cope.
Trump, too stupid to ape Clinton, and far more accomplished a liar than Palin, combines the sinister Bush-era kind of lie — “We do not torture” — with the Palin compulsion to just make things up all the time to avoid any sense of vulnerability. What Trump adds is a level of salesmanship that is truly a wonder to behold. He is a con man of surpassing brilliance and conviction, and every time he survives the fallout of a con, he gets more confident about the next one.
Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. By David Wallace-Wells*This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.
In the jungles of Costa Rica, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out. Fossils by Heartless Machine
Peering beyond scientific reticence.
is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global
warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely
scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the
lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities
they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and
so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded
our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans
are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be
absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their
lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable,
and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this
when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend
its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer
than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased
Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,”
designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and
which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten
years after being built.
Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the
seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending
flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was
not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name
suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic
permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much
as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and
is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as
powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged
on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two
decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in
Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the
atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date
that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that
multiplies its warming power 86 times over.
Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines). Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”
no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.
Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie
movies and Mad Max dystopias,
perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet
when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer
from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are
many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the
climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper
chastising scientists for editing their own observations so
conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat
really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of
technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing
culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the
way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in
offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its
slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from
decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate
writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing
as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the
way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere;
the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and
abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of
considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to
solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which
amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But
aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.
between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself.
This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with
climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds
of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is
not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be
determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human
response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where
the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all
of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the
devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those
scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they
are our schedule.
present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked
into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and
Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I
spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop
burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to
be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate
refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our
goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds
of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues
serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research;
the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the
beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But
that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve
runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured
out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t
fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and
more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which
traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract
carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate
warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift
as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years. The last time the
planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*
Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are
living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary
record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many
climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the
ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a
teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these
extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that
killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by
greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began
when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that
warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with
97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to
the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at
least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen
Hawking had in mind when he said,
this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the
next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his
plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are
nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic
as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the
past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field,
few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who
nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an
apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions
reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.
Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.
Sometimes political observers add two and two and get five. That could be happening with sudden speculation that Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams might form an early presidential–vice-presidential ticket.
Biden did privately meet with Abrams recently. And Biden’s staff has publicly kicked around the idea of their guy shaking things up by (among other things) choosing an early running mate. There’s no particular evidence that the one thing is related to the other. But for the sake of argument, let’s look at the idea and see if it makes any sense for either politician.
When Team Biden first raised the early-ticket idea a year ago, I was skeptical.
This is something no major candidate has actually tried. There’s probably a good reason for that. Setting up a ticket from the get-go, unless it’s just a dazzling no-brainer, is mostly an attention-getting device, and again, Joe Biden doesn’t need that. And it sacrifices the tactical flexibility that can be useful to a putative nominee seeking to unify the party and send a distinct message to the general electorate. If the idea is simply that Biden needs a running mate to counter his age or his ultimate-Washingtonian image, he can make it known he’s inclined to that direction without naming names, and potentially giving himself a dual problem. The age issue means that any Biden running mate will be examined more closely than the usual veep because she or he will be more likely — actuarially — to get the big job than the usual veep. And dumping a veep choice during the campaign itself would be a catastrophe, as the late George McGovern proved.
It’s telling that the only two early running-mate announcements in living memory were by desperate candidates looking for a half-court hook shot at the buzzer: Ronald Reagan in 1976, whose startling choice of moderate Senator Richard Schweiker was designed to shake loose some delegates in Pennsylvania; and Ted Cruz in 2016, who announced Carly Fiorina as a prospective veep only after he had been mathematically eliminated from the nominating contest. Desperation is not a good look for Joe Biden.
What’s happened since then is that Biden has been subjected to a barrage of criticism about his record on racially sensitive issues, from his anti-busing activism in the 1970s to his key role in the passage of anti-crime legislation in the 1990s associated with mass incarceration. This line of attack has endangered a key Biden political asset: his popularity among African-American voters, mostly attributable to his two-term partnership with Barack Obama. Biden’s already vulnerable to a loss of black support with two African-American rivals (Kamala Harris and Cory Booker) in the field. So without question, being closely associated with a celebrity African-American pol would be helpful, if not necessarily a silver bullet.
But would this sort of partnership with Biden make any sense for Stacey Abrams, who at present is among the most widely admired Democratic politicians in the country? Why would she want to take sides in what could become a fractious 2020 nominating contest, unless she decides to run for president herself (as she has hinted is still a possibility)?
Ironically, the key reason she might entertain an early Biden–Abrams ticket is that it would get her off the hook of being incessantly pressured to run for the Senate in Georgia in 2020 — a job she’s sensibly never shown any interest in (she definitely wants to be governor of Georgia, and perhaps president). If Biden loses the nomination or the general election, she can still return to Georgia and run for governor in 2022. And if he wins, well, she’d be at least as well-positioned to run for president herself as Biden is today, and the opportunity might come up in 2024, given Biden’s age. Abrams is only 45. Going from being a former state legislator to the putative vice-president on a ticket with one of the two most likely nominees might seem a reasonable path forward for her, particularly if she believes her presence could give Biden a crucial boost.
Serving as the protector of Biden’s racial flank, on the other hand, might get a little old and a little limiting for someone of Abrams’s enormous talents and potential.
In the end, Biden may not go in this direction (or even run for president, for that matter), and Abrams might not even be interested in it. But until one or the other of them rules it out, the speculation will continue. It really is hard to imagine a better tonic for the things that politically ail Uncle Joe than having Stacey Abrams at his side on the tough road ahead.
I mean by liberal democracy one in which pluralism is celebrated, power is widely distributed, justice is dispensed without regard to politics, the press is free and respected, minorities protected, and where an opposition has a chance to win real, governing power.
The space for this in America has significantly shrunk these past two years and this election has only consolidated that new status quo. In a textbook case of authoritarian creep, Trump will now further marginalize the press, rid his Cabinet of anyone not wedded to him entirely (bye-bye, General Mattis and Jeff Sessions), quash or marginalize any independent investigation into his campaign, politicize the Justice Department, and launch new inquiries against his opponents.
Do conservatives really not believe what liberals believe, that “liberal democracy is one in which pluralism is celebrated, power is widely distributed, justice is dispensed without regard to politics, the press is free and respected, minorities protected, and where an opposition has a chance to win real, governing power.”
What do they believe instead? that pluralism should be put down, power not be widely distributed, that justice should be dispensed in regard to one’s politics, that the press is the enemy of the people and should be declared Fake News, that minorities should be left unprotected, to fend for themselves, and that the opposition should be deprived of the chance to win real governing power?
In the same issue of NYMagazine Jonathan Chait has this to say:
On November 7, President Trump woke up to a world in which Democrats had smashed through a gerrymandered map to win three dozen House seats, depriving him of both his legislative majority and his effective immunity from congressional oversight and accountability. He responded in the most Trumpian way: with an atavistic display of brute dominance. He insisted the election had been a triumph (“I thought it was a very close to complete victory”), belittled Republicans who had lost for declining his “embrace,” pulled the press pass from CNN reporter Jim Acosta, and warned Democrats not to investigate anything in his administration or he would refuse to work with them and have Senate Republicans investigate them back….
From the very beginning, when Donald Trump and his father ignored demands from the Nixon Justice Department that they stop discriminating against African-Americans, through his repeated tax fraud and financial scams, legal impunity has formed the through-line of his career. Holding him accountable serves not only Democrats’ self-interest but the rule of law. That process (of impeachment?) begins now.